Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Claire Demos.
When you walk into The Gift Theatre to see its latest offering, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you know instantly that you are in for an unusual night. Instead of a traditional stage, the front of the theatre has been boxed off and enclosed in plexiglass panels, separating the actors from the audience and providing the effect that we are voyeurs looking on at the events at Elsinore Castle. That separation is not the only thing immediately obvious. The William Boles set is littered with detritus such as beer cans, etc., and Horatio (Casey Morris) stands there, waiting, holding a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and occasionally talking on a cell phone. This is not going to be your father’s Hamlet. Acclaimed guest director Monty Cole has, for better or worse, placed his mark all over this production. As ambitious as it is, though, and as well-acted (for the most part), The Gift’s Hamlet proves that even the Bard’s greatest triumph is not director-proof. Though Cole’s original and exciting conceit allows for some wonderful moments and excellent visuals, he does overplay his hand too much with a number of decisions that either don’t make much sense or (worse) pull the audience from the play.
Hamlet is, of course, the Bard’s gift to both actors and directors: a challenging, powerful, personal and poignant play full of speeches and scenes that provide all sorts of opportunities for gifted theatre people to go to town. It is also, by now, a challenge in another way: it is so familiar to the audiences that directors often feel that they must tweak it in some ways to keep it fresh. I saw a version in 1985 at the old Wisdom Bridge Theatre, also set in modern times, in which director Robert Falls (now the Artistic Director of the Goodman) had Claudius (the late Del Close) make his initial entrance via television screens and Hamlet (“Elementary” star Aidan Quinn) scrawl his famous “To be or not to be” line across a wall in spray paint. Cole is going for something of the same agenda: his Claudius (John Kelly Connelly) enters with a hand-held mic, a bigger than life figure at his own party, and his Hamlet (Daniel Kyri) also spray paints the wall, though what he writes is more thematic. Both of these seem more intrusive than helpful (especially the spray paint, which stays on the wall for the rest of the play). Where Cole succeeds brilliantly is in smaller moments: the relationship between brother and sister Laertes (Gregory Fenner) and Ophelia (Netta Walker) is made clear through several playful moments including a couple of marvelous scenes: the two of them playing a video game together and sharing earbuds. Because we see how much the siblings care for each other, the scene in which Laertes leaps into her grave becomes even more powerful. Cole may well have created this bond better than I can ever recall seeing it before.
Unfortunately, he also makes several decisions that seem gratuitous or at least adverse to his intentions. His playful conceit of having their father Polonius (Robert Cornelius) piggy-back his late teenage daughter is a nice idea, but it seems very artificial, even a tad creepy. Intrusive side scene elements pull our attention several times: Gertrude (Shanesia Davis) freshening herself in her room, Hamlet watching videos of himself as a baby, etc. Each of these is clearly intended as a commentary and extension of the scene that is playing out, but they are more distracting than helpful (though one, involving Ophelia, works very well). In addition, the lighting and sound become very aggressive at times: every scene change is accompanied by a very brief burst of scratchy music, every major speech involves a huge lighting change. It’s just unnecessary and keeps diverting attention from what is going on. (Claire Chrzan and Michelle E. Benda’s complex lighting scheme is beautiful, as is the music, etc. provided by Jeffrey Levin; they are just overused.)
Of course, ultimately Hamlet is about the acting, and here Cole has assembled an ensemble of actors who know what they are doing. Kyri’s take on the title role is wonderful: his inner struggle is clear from his first entrance, sitting lost on the floor as his uncle greets his guests. Kyri also plays the “north by northwest” madness of the prince well. While it is clear that Hamlet is indeed “put(ting) an antic disposition on,” it is also clear that there comes a time when the young man, struggling with his own inability to act, loses all control. It starts in his earliest scenes. His plaintive plea to Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” does come across as a desire to get her out of this house of lies and treachery, but we can watch him pained by his own ugly words by the scene’s end. By the scene in Gertrude’s closet, he has completely forgotten himself: here his intentionally hurtful speeches to his mother, while they still make him wince, are beyond all control, culminating of course with the death of Polonius. Kyri’s graveside reaction to Laertes is, in contrast, full of the kind of sincere anguish that Hamlet feels upon learning that the woman he loved—and hurt—has died. The differences between the “madness” he was feigning and the real pain he feels, while blended in the closet scene, is easily accessible here. It is a brave and powerful performance.
Davis, too, is brilliant as the queen who too quickly gives in to the suit of her brother-in-law after her husband’s death. Shakespeare never does give us a clue as to why she would do that. Cole creates moments, though, that suggest the couple has already forged a bond as they share laughter and serious (silent) discussion with each other during key scenes. As her son apparently loses his mind, though, Gertrude too devolves into darkness, At one point Cole has her literally crawl across the stage—perhaps a step over the line, but certainly indicative of someone who is losing control of her life. The very real agony and heartbreak she feels about her son is clear in her every move and line.
Other actors are just as strong. Fenner and Walker make a perfect Laertes and Ophelia. His brief scenes with his father before he goes off to school show the kind of relationship that will make him swear vengeance later on. Walker’s crazy scene is simply brilliant. Cole’s staging and her performance here could not have been better, pulling every poignant emotion from the moment. Hannah Toriumi and Martel Manning have a blast as Rosencranz and Guildenstern, though the decision to have these two erstwhile friends of Hamlet also be the Players gets very confusing: it makes for a scene in which Hamlet seems a bit schizophrenic: one moment he loves them dearly and the next he doesn’t seem to even know them very well. It saves having to hire additional cast members, but ultimately it does not work except to give Martel a marvelous showcase for comic skills he also displays as the gravedigger. Morris is a fine Horatio, his dedication to his best friend shining above all else. In the opening scene his reaction to the ghost is perfect; later on he does everything he can for Hamlet. Morris plays him without any guile, and that helps the character immensely: whatever his prince needs, you know instantly he will do, and he is also ready to defend Hamlet from any and all danger. Connolly is a strong physical presence as Claudius but wisely chooses to play him as calm and controlled: the killer hiding his guilt from the world is not the dynamic king his brother was. Alexander Lane, playing young Fortinbras and other characters, also credits himself well.
On opening night, Cornelius was a bit more problematic. Playing both the ghost and Polonius (a decision that is at best curious, at worst confusing), the seasoned actor exhibited some real difficulty articulating his lines. His decision to have Polonius speak a mile a minute surely didn’t help him. While it contrasts dramatically with Connolly’s slow, careful reading, Polonius’ rapid-fire speech patterns contributed greatly to a night full of stumbling and stuttering. Slowing down a bit might be very helpful: Polonius is a blowhard and a clown, but he doesn’t need to be a whirlwind as well.
Like Falls’ Hamlet back in the 80s, Cole’s version is ambitious and audacious. Where it succeeds, it is exciting, but it gets in its own way far too often. Ultimately it is worth seeing for the parts that do work and for Kyri’s strong performance and for the play itself—Hamlet, even overdone, is the best play ever written. Cole keeps the three-hour work (believe it or not, the full play is another hour long; the editing here is generally quite good) moving briskly along, and he gets some wonderful performances from his cast. I don’t know if people will still remember it 33 years from now, but you’ll be talking about it for days. It is a flawed but fascinating production.
Hamlet is now playing at The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, until July 29. Performance times may vary; check the website at The Gift Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.