This is the third American Shakespeare Center version of "Hamlet" I've reviewed since 2005. I can't say it's the best of the three, but only because each production was superbly cast and featured unique, unforgettable dramatic flourishes and interpretations that set it apart from everything else.
Not being greater than its predecessors isn't a shortcoming for the "Hamlet" now stalking the boards of the Blackfriars Playhouse. It inhabits its own special place in the annals of ASC performances, standing alone in terms of vibrancy and emotional rhythm. It is fresh and fluent and injects persuasive new life into one of the most exhaustively performed and quoted of Shakespeare's plays.
Simply put, it is its own work of art.
The story is a familiar one, centering on Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, who returns from Germany to attend his father's funeral. Upon his return, he finds that his mother has too-hastily married her dead husband's brother, thereby making Hamlet's ascension to the throne impossible.
Shakespeare indulges his fondness for ghosts when he allows the shade of Hamlet's father to appear and reveal that it was his brother (Hamlet's uncle) who murdered him. He commands his son to take revenge. Hamlet — a young man of surging and unpredictable passions, to say the least — feigns madness as a way to buy time while he figures out what to do.
Because of his complexity, Hamlet may be the most daunting of all Shakespeare's characters for an actor to master. In truth, it may not be possible for a single player in a single run of a show to nail every nuance of the Dane's multifaceted personality. But ASC veteran John Harrell comes as close to it as perhaps is humanly possible and, in the bargain, gives us a Hamlet that is sensitive, intelligent and startlingly original.
Yes, his Hamlet is a moody and agonized creature who broods into the empty eye sockets of a skull. Yes, his Hamlet is angry and voluble at the turn of events that have robbed him of his father, blackened his opinion of his mother and stripped him of the kingdom that was rightfully his. Yes, he makes us wonder if Hamlet's whack-job act is really all that much of an act.
At the same time, Harrell knits into the character a level of humor and humanity that a lesser actor (or director) would not. Shakespeare has given him some wicked clever lines, and he works them to his advantage, often bringing a surprised audience to full-throated laughter. Laugh at Hamlet? Are we supposed to do that?
Plus, Harrell seems to deliberately present of some of the most famous lines in the English language with a peculiar and mercurial edge; his "To be or not to be" soliloquy, for example, is upon us and racing forward almost before we are aware of it. The approach works, however, even when it tips the audience a little off balance. I suspect that is Harrell's intention, and in the end, what he has done is to create a gold standard for ASC Hamlets to come.
"Hamlet," which was directed by Jim Warren, also features in strong performances Benjamin Curns as Polonius, Miriam Donald as Ophelia, James Keegan as Claudius and Blythe Coons as Gertrude. Assuming multiple roles, Daniel Burrows, Allison Glenzer, Chris Johnston, Patrick Midgley, Rene Thornton Jr., Gregory Jon Phelps and John Basiulis give equally compelling performances in what is a cruel, powerful but ultimately engrossing play.
For the best seats, order your Hamlet tickets today!
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The Winter's Tale
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