Don't Miss This Hamlet at Hartford Stage
By Karen Isaacs
I've lost track of the number of productions of Hamlet I've seen. The last one was at the Yale Rep, directed by James Bundy and starring Paul Giammatti as Hamlet. I enjoyed his performance; it was an unexpected take on the character and it certainly could be justified by the text.
But the new production of Hamlet now at Hartford Stage through November 16, is one that no theater lover should miss. It is hard to say it is a perfect production -- I'm not sure there is such a thing -- but this is one of the BEST Hamlets I've ever seen.
Kudos must first go to director Darko Tresnjak who has proven once again that he is a master of Shakespeare. As in last year's outstanding MacBeth, he is also the scenic designer.
Tresnjak has a clear vision of the play; he views it as a revenge tragedy in which not only Hamlet is trying to revenge his father's death (in this case at the hands of Hamlet's uncle) but that Laertes and the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras are also trying to revenge their fathers. In addition, he calls attention to those Shakespeare experts who see this play in terms of religious differences. The Catholic past of England versus its Protestant present and future. In that sense he draws on England's history of moving from the Catholic church, the establishment of the Anglican Church under Henry VIII, its return to Catholicism under Mary's brief reign and then the full establishment of the Church of England under Elizabeth. It was a period in England of spying and intrigue.
First of all, he assembled a fine cast. Most of the actors are very experienced in Shakespeare and their credits range from the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and many others.
Either Tresnjak likes setting challenges for himself or he is developing unique ways to cope with Hartford Stage's very wide and very deep stage. Remember the maze in his magical production of Twelfth Night?
This time, as you enter the theater -- you see a large checkerboard in the shape of a cross on the floor of the stage. For most of the play, that is the playing area. It defines the space and focuses our attention on the actors and the lines. To be sure, he does use other parts of the stage for the playing area. It is mostly black and white but later in the play, the tiles do change color. I could point to some other brilliant effects -- the ghost of Hamlet's father and the final moments of the play. I don't want to spoil them for you by describing them. I said "Wow!"
But no Hamlet can work without the right title character. Zach Appelman has numerous Shakespeare credits to his name. His Hamlet is conversational, funny, antic without being overboard. You know you are in good hands when the first of the great speeches "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt" sounds fresh and natural. From there he only improves. When Hamlet is appearing mad, some actors make him too antic, but Appelman and Trenjak keep it in balance.
The same goes for Edward James Hyland as Polonious -- he is funny without playing the role for laughs or exaggerating the characteristics. In fact, that may be the best aspect of this production -- the characters do not go too far. The performances of Floyd King as both the Player King and the First Gravedigger, Anthony Roach as Laertes, Adqm Montgomery as the Player Queen, James Seol as Horatio are all in balance and restrained.
Kate Forbes is a fine Gertrude and Andrew Long is excellent as Claudius. Brittany Vicars who is making her debut as Ophelia is the only one who occasionally seems to go over the top but that is minor flaw and the role is really a very difficult one. You do see her conausion by the conflicting advice she is handed, her own feelings and Hamlet's every changing attitudes.
I must also appreciate Curtis Billings and Cliff Miller as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively. -They create two distinct characters yet are restrained in their performances.
Tresnjak has used the talents of costume designer Fabio Toblini, lighting designer Matthew Richards, sound designer Jane Shaw and the other members of the production team to create a spell binding production of this classic tragedy. -This is visually stunning -- from Hamlet in all black through much of the play to his final costume of "blood" red and Gertrude and Claudius in the bright red at the beginning until later they dress all in funereal black.
Do NOT miss it.
Hamlet is at the Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St, Hartford, through Nov. 16. For tickets and information, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.HartfordStage.org.
This review appeared in Shore Publications and www.zip06.com and at 2ontheaisle.wordpress.com.