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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Productions with the Danish royals in modern dress have become commonplace. Equally common is the practice of using just eight or nine actors, with some roles eliminated or handled with double casting. Since a full telling of Hamlet's story can run almost five hours, abridged versions also abound, with one Hamlet we reviewed clocking in quite effectively at a sleek hundred minutes. Believe it or not, a completely silent production turned out to be quite wonderful. And not to be overlooked, there's Rosenkranz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which Tom Stoppard, with no apologies to the Bard, wittily starred two minor characters in a dazzlingly confounding play in which the melancholy Dane was made distinctly minor.
The Theatre for a New Audience's (TFNA) Hamlet takes a middle ground in terms of modernizing and streamlining. The costumes are contemporary (Hamlet, as is usual, wears funereal black, Claudius and Gertrude and their court are decked out in silvery gray in what could be the 1940s or 1950s). The staging is minimal, with a few props carried on and off stage, mostly by the actors, leaving it to rely heavily on the quite effective lighting and sound work of Marcus Doshi and Jane Shaw. The focus is less on superstar casting than telling an exciting story with easy to follow clarity that is part of the mission that's self-evident in the company's title and the affordably priced student tickets.
Even at a hefty three hours and fifteen minutes, some cuts and downsizing of plot elements are inevitable, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Craig Pattison and Richard Topol) and all the much quoted verbal gems made the cut. Best of all, there's no loss of the intimate connection between actors and audience that comes with the large houses needed to accommodate superstar productions. The Duke's thrust stage has the audience close to the actors, with Hamlet even sitting right in the aisle as if part of the audience to watch the play-within-the-play also known as the mousetrap scene.
What about this Hamlet? Christian Carmago is at times somewhat distant, with a tendency to be more outraged than melancholy and indecisive. Director David Esbjornson not only moved his "to be or not to be" soliloquy to resume the play after the first intermission but has Carmago interrupt himself and replay it — an amusing filip which somewhat offsets the fact that these don't seem to be the words uttered by a man contemplating suicide. Generally speaking, no complaints about the clarity of Carmago's line delivery. Unlike older more mature actors for whom this role is a career milestone, having young actors to play Hamlet, Horatio (Tom Hammond), Laertes (Graham Hamilton), and the very briefly appearing Fortinbras (Sean Haberle), make this very much a young man's play about sons dealing with the loss of a father.
The standout performance of the supporting cast is by Alvin Epstein as Polonious, the wisdom spouting member of the Claudius-Gertrude court. His admonishing his rucksack toting son to "neither a borrower or a lender be" while handing him money from a fat roll of greenbacks, is one of the play's more humorous moments. Jennifer Ikeda as Ophelia, the daughter who is Hamlet's love (at least until he tells her to begone to a nunnery) comes into her own in the famous mad scene which brings her dancing on stage and onto a long table in a cloud of sheer white fabric.
Casey Biggs, a late replacement for the previously announced Patrick Page as Claudius, acquits himself quite well. He could be any ambitious corporate executive who's risen to the head of the boardroom table, and nabbed a trophy wife in the bargain. I refer to Gertrude (Alyssa Bresnahan) as a trophy wife not because she's much younger, but in the sense that by marrying her, Claudius usurps his brother in the bedroom as well as the boardroom. In her stiff upsweep and Elizabeth Hope Clancy's equally stiff, stylized silver outfits, she's one of the coldest Gertrudes I've ever seen. She does literally let her hair down in the big confrontation scene with Hamlet, but the iceberg queen image never quite disappears, even when she realizes that she's been poisoned.
As usual, this production's high points include the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet's father and the gravedigger's scene. Both vengeance seeking ghost and the grave digger are powerfully portrayed by Jonathan Fried and John Christopher Jones respectively. Also worth a round of applause is B.H. Barry's terrific fight choreography .
Students and teachers especially will want to save the TFNA program. It contains an excellent chronology to add perspective to the play and a delightfully rhymed synopsis by Michel Orlin, a Franco-American journalist with a deep love for Shakespeare. His Hamlet synopsis is taken from a planned volume of rhymed summaries of all the major plays in the Shakespeare canon. Sounds like a most useful and fun book .
For links to reviews of various productions of this and other Shakespeare plays, see our Shakespear quotation page.