Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Courtyard)





Hamlet

at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

By Dan Zeff

Chicago-–Many compliments can be paid to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s outstanding current revival of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, but the word that most comes to mind is “accessible.” The CST production handles Shakespeare’s complicated plot brilliantly. The characters and events are cleanly etched and the language, which often sounds like a thesaurus of famous quotations, is spoken clearly. The famous soliloquies are delivered like natural speech, not elocution exercises. Spectators intimidated by Shakespeare in general and “Hamlet” in particular should rejoice.

The CST production is performed in modern dress. The soliloquies are mostly delivered as intimate one-way conversations directly to the audience, not as elocution demonstrations. Even a war house like “To be or not to be” is given a thoughtful realistic interpretation that makes the passage mint fresh. The entire production takes its lead from Hamlet’s instruction to the traveling players to speak and act realistically, without distracting and self indulgent flourishes.

“Hamlet,” for all its philosophical resonances, basically is a revenge drama with supernatural trimmings. Prince Hamlet of Denmark deeply mourns the recent death of his father and resents his mother Gertrude’s rapid remarriage to his uncle Claudius, who has become king. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and tells Hamlet him he was murdered by Claudius and demands that Hamlet revenge his father. Hamlet’s agonizing dilemma over how to take his revenge is the motor that drives the action.

Photo Credit: Liz Laurin

Maurice Jones sets the tone of the production with his plain spoken and naturalistic Hamlet. Jones is a solidly built young man with none of the fussy neurotic flourishes that afflict some interpretations of the character (one critic once called Hamlet “a constipated young man in tights.”).The knowledge of his father’s murder pushes Jones’s Hamlet to the emotional breaking point but he remains a canny, intelligent man, impulsive yet wary.

Jones is the heart and soul of the production, but the CST production gives him terrific support with a gallery of splendid supporting performances by a blend of familiar local actors and talented imports. The main characters who interact with Hamlet are a fascinating group. Larry Yando is a scene stealer as the Danish prime minister Polonius, a pompous and cliché spouting courtier who still commands the deep affection of his daughter Ophelia (Rachel Nicks) and his son Laertes (Paul Deo, Jr.) Nicks is especially credible in the delicate role of a girl too vulnerable to survive court politics.

Director Gaines has paid particular attention to the narrative’s second tier characters. Hamlet’s college friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Alex Goodrich and Samuel Taylor), normally barely noticed plot devices, come alive as the prince’s boon companions and ultimately his betrayers. Greg Vinkler is an unusually powerful Player King and returns as one of the two witty gravediggers, the other being the inimitable Mike Nussbaum, still an incisive actor at the age of 95. Kevin Gudahl gets legitimate comic mileage out of two cameo appearances by the extravagantly mannered courtier Osric. The depth of acting ability in this production is impressive, even by the high CST standards.

The revival runs about three hours, including one intermission, normally a long sit, but the open stage and skillful use of the aisles give the production pace and energy and keeps the attentive viewer’s attention continually engaged over the entire playing area. Indeed, in spite of the length of the show, one regrets the omission of Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince who gives the plot its closure and is surely well worth a few additional minutes.

The creative physical production peaks with Mike Tutaj’s rendering of the murdered king’s ghost as a shimmering image covering a giant white screen at the back of the stage early in the play. The image and the booming voiceover endow the production is truly spectral feeling, enhanced by the final view of the murdered king and his recently assassinated son finally joined in a final filial bond.

Photo Credit: Liz Laurin

Scott Davis designed the minimalist but effective set. The modern costumes by Susan E. Mickey establish the timeless atmosphere of the play (the traveling players wear costumes more Elizabethan in look). Robert Wierzel designed the often dramatic lighting plan and Lindsay Jones contributed the sound design and original music. Larry Yando also earns the audience’s gratitude as the verse coach. Seldom have we heard so many actors speak the Bard’s verse with such consistent fluency and clarity. Matt Hawkins gets a shout out for staging the realistically ferocious sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes in the final act.

Spectators are free to view “Hamlet” as an existential problem play, exploring the prince’s tortured state of mind as he is forced to deal with his father’s death. Countless volumes of literary criticism over the centuries have explored the matter. But viewers content to enjoy a serious play full of action and conflict and humor have got to take pleasure in this revival without laboring to plumb the deeper philosophical implications of the masterwork. “Hamlet” examines basic questions about the human condition, but it equally endures as an action packed, suspenseful, and often humorous three hours of theater.

Patrons who have attended multiple versions of the play will find their understanding of the play refreshed and expanded. Newcomers will find its narrative power a revelation. This “Hamlet” would be a great introduction for newcomers to the Shakespearean canon, especially student audiences who may think the plays are dated and difficult to understand. Will they be in for a happy surprise!

“Hamlet” gets a rating of

“Hamlet” runs through June 9 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Courtyard Theater.. Most performances are Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $48 to $88. For more information, visit www.chicagoshakes.com/hamlet.

 

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.                       April 2019

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