If you ask me…
By Tom Holehan

Breathless “Hamlet” is a Winner for Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak is on a winning streak. He was named Artistic Director of the esteemed Hartford Stage in 2011 and has already made his name there with such outstanding successes as “Twelfth Night”, the Pulitzer Prize winning “Water by the Spoonful” and last season’s superb “Macbeth”. There is also the current Broadway hit musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”, which garnered Tresnjak his very first Tony Award for “Outstanding Director” last season. Back in Hartford where, if we are all lucky, we’ll have him as long as he chooses to stay, Tresnjak has now tackled Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the results do not disappoint.

Considered by many to be Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “Hamlet” will forever be a challenge to directors willing to explore its timeless themes and actors brave and resourceful enough to take on roles of daunting complexity. Tresnjak’s “Hamlet” is a furiously paced, breathless adventure firmly set in a traditional production without the musty trappings or too-reverential approach that can doom this classic. It is also free of an ill-advised star turn (i.e. Paul Giamatti as one of the more mature Hamlets in recent memory at Yale Rep in 2013). No, Mr. Tresnjak blows off the cobwebs and gives a fresh take as his Hamlet (a youthful and energetic Zach Appelman) arrives home to enact revenge on his mother (Kate Forbes) and Uncle Claudius (Andrew Long) for the mysterious death of his father.

It is no surprise that, like his magnificent “Macbeth”, Tresnjak has again stripped the stage of excess (he is credited as scenic designer) and relied on his brilliant team of artists: Fabio Toblini (costumes), Matthew Richards (lighting) and Jane Shaw (sound). With them he has created a series of striking stage pictures and images that he caps off with a stunning theatrical coup at curtain that is as poignant as it is thrilling to experience. Rarely do all the design elements mesh so magically and effectively to the whole, but that is what we witness in this particular production.

In the large company the more seasoned actors seem to fare best. Both Forbes (a terrific Lady Macbeth last season) and Long play the King and Queen with commanding authority. Edward James Hyland’s fatherly Polonius and Floyd King, double-cast as the First Gravedigger (marvelous!) and the Player King, register fondly in the memory. Brittany Vicars does well as the fragile Ophelia and Anthony Roach is fine as her brother, Laertes. In the title role, I found Zach Appelman a tad glib and jokey at times, but it all comes together by that stunning finale and his Hamlet ultimately seems very much in tune with Tresnjak’s concept.

There are some odd staging choices especially when Polonius seems to be killed in a trap door basement instead of behind a tapestry as indicated in the script and the final swordfight between Laertes and Hamlet is a little rushed. Minor quibbles to be sure. This is a “Hamlet” for today’s audiences in which the Hartford Stage and Mr. Tresnjak can take great pride. See it.

“Hamlet” continues at Hartford Stage through November 16. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.525.5601 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

 

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