Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2006

I saw a wonderful new play yesterday called Hamlet. That is how I felt, anyway. Eleanor Holdridge’s staging of Shakespeare’s masterpiece made me feel as if I was seeing the play for the first time. As if it were some new work built out of amazingly familiar language and characters that I greeted like old friends when they came around the bend. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Whether or not this is the Hamlet William Shakespeare wrote is another question, but frankly even the most eminent scholars don’t agree on that point – the new two-volume Arden edition of Hamlet includes three versions of the text. Modern audiences won’t sit still for 4-5 hours of anything anymore, so any production offered up under the title Hamlet will be a shortened version made up of the director’s selection from the words and stage directions that have come down to us through the centuries, all purporting to be the work of William Shakespeare, whoever he was.

The portions of the play Holdridge has selected form a cohesive whole, and her most intelligent choice has been paring the cast down to eleven actors. The script calls for 22 named characters and assorted players, English ambassadors, lords, ladies, soldiers, sailors, messengers, and attendants. Frankly, no matter how hard I study a script ahead of time, I can never keep all the minor nobility sorted out in Shakespeare’s history plays. And my fear when I heard this was to be a bare bones cast was that I would be even more confused as everyone assayed multiple roles. But Holdridge has cleverly eliminated the non-essential personnel (Did you even know there was a character named Voltemand in Hamlet? I thought he was Harry Potter’s nemesis) and the little doubling that occurs is done in such a way that it makes good sense.

In Holdridge’s pared down version I got my first clear vision of several of the key characters for the first time, notably Hamlet’s pals Horatio and the much maligned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ophelia and Laertes came in to much sharper focus, as did Fortinbras. Now, I have a feeling some of this clarity is an illusion caused by the reassignment of lines here and there. A purist would probably have a terrible time at this production, and if you fall into the category of person who can tell the difference between a line from the 1604 “Good Quarto” and one from the 1623 Folio version, I would stay at home.

Hamlet is a remarkably modern play. It is ostensibly set in 13th century Denmark, but Shakespeare frequently used foreign locales as an excuse for setting his plays both nowhere and anywhere. The Hamlet story has its roots in several ancient Norse and Celtic legends of heroes who feigned madness to exact revenge. Shakespeare essentially gave an ancient tale a “modern Elizabethan” spin, and so Hamlet is not really set in any identifiable time period either. Using a legendary plot assumes a certain audience familiarity, so Shakespeare was free to focus on character. Because Shakespeare draws such vividly real characters, and because Holdridge’s pared down cast allows us to focus clearly on the most important players in this tale, this particular “Hamlet” becomes immediate and vital. It thus seems perfectly logical that Jessica Ford’s costumes are more modern than “period.” What period would they be? If they were Elizabethan they would still be “modern dress” for Shakespeare’s time since Hamlet does not occur in Elizabethan England.

The fact that Jason Asprey would be playing the title role opposite his real-life mother Tina Packer as Gertrude and his real-life step-father Dennis Krausnick as Polonius has been widely publicized. I never doubted that Asprey would make a terrific Hamlet. He is a charismatic and playful actor who can make a monumental task like playing the Melancholy Dane seem easy and fun. In fact there is nothing melancholy about Asprey’s Hamlet. Yes, his grief over his father’s death drives him to seek revenge on his step-father Claudius (Nigel Gore), but this Hamlet gets a kick out of playing mad and shows genuine affection for Ophelia (Elizabeth Raetz), Horatio (Howard W. Overshown), Laertes (Kevin O’Donnell), and even manages to muster some enthusiasm for those ultimate uninvited guests, Rosencrantz (Tom Wells) and Guildenstern (Kenajuan Bentley).

A doubling, actually a tripling of roles that works extraordinarily well is using John Windsort-Cunningham as the ghost of Hamlet’s father (whose name was also Hamlet), the Player King, and the Gravedigger. When Asprey encounters Windsor-Cunningham in the latter two guises, he stops to see the resemblance to his father, but shakes it off as coincidence, a trick of the mind. Windsor-Cunningham makes each role a separate entity while allowing you just a hint that he may be who is appears to be after all.

I also found the concept of having Claudius and Gertrude play the leading roles in “The Murder of Gonzago,” as if the play-within-a-play was just a giant party game, to be extremely effective and moving. Although Gore’s sudden disintegration upon Claudius’ realizing that he had been duped into reenacting his own crime rang false. Until that moment, and indeed afterwards, Gore’s Claudius had been solidly in control of himself and the kingdom. Such a man would either have seen the set-up coming, or kept himself in better check after the fact.

Because Asprey is playing against his real-life mother, Holdridge wisely and completely ignores the incestuous love at which Shakespeare clearly hints. This Hamlet is really and truly angry and disgusted with Gertrude, and it is obvious why. As Packer plays her she is woman easily manipulated, sucked along in the tide of Danish politics the way poor Ophelia is sucked into the moat. Women don’t fare too well in Holdridge’s “Hamlet,” and at first I was personally shocked by Packer’s wimpy, mewling Gertrude, a character I have always identified as the uber-mommy the way Lady Macbeth is the uber-childless woman. But I came to respect her acting choices and the way her Gertrude fit into the male-dominated whole of Holdridge’s vision.

Although the play is titled The Tragedy of Hamlet the real tragedy here is Ophelia’s. Everyone else pretty much knows what they’re getting into, but Ophelia, poor little thing, is just clueless. The men in her life – father, brother, lover – pull her this way and that until she has no where to go but down into the grave. Raetz is a tiny, slender woman, all muscle and nerve, who shows us an Ophelia so uncertain of herself that she easily slips into male-induced madness.

Krausnick is a very funny Polonius, babbling away in the blithe manner of an absent-minded professor who enjoys nothing more than the sound of his own voice. If only the poor old duffer didn’t have a penchant for hiding behind the arras.

Holdridge and her design team became very interested in the use of light in this production and everything on stage absorbs, reflects or refracts the beams of pure white light that carve out discrete playing spaces. There are no sets per se. Props are minimal and deliberate. Color is used sparingly. While I was confused by the cobalt blue tangle of satiny coils on Gertrude’s bed, I loved the long trail of crimson fabric Hamlet’s father’s ghost trailed behind him, dragging it over the people and places of his recent earthly existence.

The conceit of Holdridge’s that this production takes place as flashbacks in the mind of the dying Hamlet doesn’t really work, but the loud electronic sizzle that accompanies the brilliant flashes of light do jolt the audience out of any reveries they may have fallen into. Frankly the musical score by Scott Killian was the piece of this production I could happily have done without. Ford’s costumes, while at times jarring, were often effective and evocative. I enjoyed Gertrude’s hats, wonderfully evocative of the current Queen Liz, and Ophelia’s “mad” attire in which her scalp literally sprouted twigs, as if she was already reverting to the soil from which she came.

With its clear focus on Hamlet‘s central plot and characters, this production offers a great way to introduce teens to the Bard’s finest work. At the matinee I attended there were already some breathless young female groupies who obviously found Asprey appealing on many levels. When I was fifteen I fell in love with a handsome and talented Shakespearean actor named Raul Julia, and consequently with the theatre. If Asprey’s good looks and spirited performance lure a new generation into the theatre to fall in love with Shakespeare, this is a good thing.

Hamlet runs in repertory through August 27 in the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for teens and adults. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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