‘Tis anything but common: Red Theater’s Hamlet excites and thrills

Photo by Faith Decker / Wannabe Studio

Entering The Edge Off Broadway to see Red Theater’s Hamlet, you are greeted with the sight of a raised, square (and, yes, partially red) stage platform on which actor Ashley Fox, in a tattered red and black sweater, sits facing a single chair, pensively thumbing through a photo album. It’s a quiet, reflective opening for her powerful performance as the Prince of the Danes, and it brilliantly sets up the sense of abject loss that propels the character through this greatest of all Shakespeare’s plays. By the time Fox removes a single photograph, folds it in half, and secrets in her pocket—an action that has a callback later—she and director Wyatt Kent have both fully immersed you in the intense internal pain that Hamlet feels and set up the tragedy to come.

This is the second Hamlet to open in Chicago within a week—the other is Eddie Izzard’s one-woman take on the play—and the second in which the melancholy Dane is portrayed by a woman. The result, in both cases, has been thrilling, personal theatre that delves deeply into the powerful emotions that have “o’erthrown’ the character’s “noble mind,” validations (as if any were needed) of the gender-blind casting that is so much a part of the modern theatrical world. Fox’s Hamlet is at times deeply internalized, at others manic in its physicality, and both feed the divided, angst-filled characterization of the prince whom Sir Lawrence Olivier famously called “a man who couldn’t make up his mind.” Watching Fox, over the course of the play’s three hours that never once feels long, weighing Hamlet’s need for revenge against his desire to make certain it is justified, reveals the dichotomous and painful emotional tug of war within the character.

Whether in her quietly passionate moments, her verbal outbursts that coincide with putting “an antic disposition on” to bait the king into an admission of guilt, her manically explosive interactions with Julia Rowley’s Ophelia (who is often quite manic herself) or Kelly Levander’s Gertrude (whose physical petting blurs the line between a mother’s love and sheer sensuality), or even her angrily impulsive reaction to the clear betrayal of erstwhile friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (hilarious performances by Harrison Lampert and Mary Townsend Cahoon), Fox creates a Hamlet whose profound pain makes his actions utterly believable and even inevitable. Her line deliveries run the gamut from introspective and quiet to frenzied and volatile—sometimes within the same speech—and never fail to capture the violent instability within Hamlet’s mind as his inaction and pretended madness begin to consume him.

The key scene in which Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill his uncle because of a mistaken perception that Claudius is cleansing his soul through prayer is at once the quietest and most intense moment of the play. Robert Koon’s villainous king, whose speeches and actions before this have reeked of faux piety and self-justification, reveals the internal disquietude that he keeps hidden. His abortive attempt at prayer, though, shows us that despite being conscious of his sins he nonetheless chooses to accept himself as he is. Fox, meanwhile, reveals the intense turmoil within Hamlet’s mind that leads, in the next scene, to his extreme mistreatment of his mother and the death of the buffoon Polonius (the comic blowhard wonderfully played by Zach Bloomfield).

In the end, the profound “sea change” that overcomes the prince after his impulsive murder of Polonius and his interrupted journey toward England is rather like letting the air out of an overinflated balloon: there isn’t enough left to sustain the pain. It’s plain in the graveyard scene (which features a fun Josh Razavi performance as the gravedigger) that this is a calmer, more politic Hamlet. From the low-key conversation with best friend Horatio (a quietly intense Reginald Hemphill) to his serene contemplation of Yorick’s skull, Fox shows us a Hamlet with a more tranquil mind. (Of course, when Ian Maryfield’s Laertes throws himself into Ophelia’s grave, it is such an emotional challenge that the prince can be forgiven for the momentary outburst that follows.)

Kent proves himself adept at all of the many kinds of scenes this play contains, from Hamlet’s many introspective moments to the excellent play-within-a-play (or Tatiana Pavela’s intense Hecuba speech) to the painful breakdown of Ophelia’s sanity, where Rowley is most impressive showing what a real “o’erthrown mind” looks like. He easily sustains the play’s force and tension through its many moments of comic relief to its action-filled climax (where Jamie Macpherson’s fight choreography is top-notch and Tulsi McDaniels, who has quietly added to scenes as a minor character, moves into the spotlight for a moment as Osric.) Kent’s cutting of the play, too, preserves its most essential and famous moments even while streamlining it; he notably includes the lovely “fall of a sparrow” speech that is missing—and missed—in Izzard’s version. He is well supported by his designers, especially Sebby Woldt’s sound and Madeline Felauer’s eclectic costumes.

My husband, not a theatre person despite the hundreds of plays we’ve seen together, opted not to see “another Hamlet.” That was a mistake that he shouldn’t have made. As the woman sitting next to me remarked at intermission, the quality of Chicago’s small productions is amazing, and this one will live in my memory for a long time.

Hamlet runs through May 19 at The Edge Off Broadway, 1333 W. Catalpa, Chicago. You can get tickets here. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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