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Theater Review:

"HAMLET" at Court Theatre


Director Charles Newell exposes the Danish Prince’s fragile emotional state through a stark series of sensory-theatrical tiers in his post-modern production of Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" at Court Theatre. Footlights in plain view of the audience and their alternating fluorescent glare and slicing shadows against a tilted chrome-slab of a backdrop go beyond the play-within-a-play idea (a key element of the work’s original structure). The result is an interpretation that attempts to scrape away any pre-conceived or long-ingrained notions of the Bard’s most-quoted and produced tragedies at the same time it ceases to be "Hamlet" at all.

The opening sequence – both baffling and evocative – places a naked and weeping Hamlet curled up in a fetal position on a gloomily lit center stage. This anguished image is followed by the guards of Elsinore Castle bounding and shouting across catwalks set above the audience’s heads at the approach of the specter of the prince’s deceased father in sporadic torchlight.

From this enigmatic darkness, we are ruthlessly thrust into the eye-burning illumination of the stage lined on a piercing diagonal with the main figures in the drama. Their starched, metallic costumes in equally blinding hues seem to traverse the world of period drama and present day, thus illustrating Newell’s desire to not get trapped in either setting. Yet in his efforts to create a production unlike any other, the director moves precariously close to violating the playwright’s original intent.

In brief, "Hamlet" examines the prince’s interior battle over avenging his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle Claudius, now king and married to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Appalled at the lawlessness of the royal court and his family, Hamlet feigns madness to bring reason back into his universe. He loves Ophelia but hurts her in order to propel his charade into action. Blood is spilled, and it flows until the play’s grand and final confrontation.

Act One has great promise. Newell’s nouveau concept points intriguingly toward a surgical stripping-down of language into a realm of deeply thought-out emotion. Even as Hamlet wails and heaves, he grounds himself in a steely self-control mirrored by the industrial set and foggily transparent screens, where suspicious eyes creep about. The scene in which Hamlet catches the conscience of the king by asking a troupe of players to reenact the late ruler’s murder features a video camera, which allows us to view a parallel drama consisting of Claudius’ and Gertrude’s guilt-racked reactions.

But the experience is not necessarily compelling or thrilling – just curious. I took in the elaborately streamlined scenic design --featuring the talents of Narelle Sissons (sets), John Culbert (lights) and Joyce Kim Lee (costumes) – wondering how what Newell called an interpretation rooted in the "emotional noise" of the play would come together in the second half.

To my surprise, Act Two felt like a very different play – its glaringly slick qualities creating more of a void than a viscerally immersive experience. The characters – and their complex drives -- eventually fall through a chasm of unrelated images, which visually and aurally fight against each other. I was yanked out of this production the moment Ophelia (Cassandra Bissell) enters with black hair and a silver-painted face. She wears a shiny gray-and-black pant suit with an extremely ruffled collar – making her look like a futuristic clown. Instead of passing out flowers during her mad scene, she tosses letters at those around her.

In Act One, Ophelia (porcelain-skinned and blonde-haired) is admirable for the strength she exhibits beneath her tenderness. There is no need for such a monstrously extreme transformation later on. Newell’s bizarre vision of her is merely gratuitous. And one must question how far from the play’s central themes he has drifted.

In fact, Newell has made extensive edits and moved around key soliloquies – most notably, pushing "To be or not to be" to the opening of the second act and delivered by Guy Adkins’ Hamlet in rapid-fire frustration. The Gravedigger’s witty and wrenching sequence (performed by a wry Yasen Peyankov) falls sadly into the realm of cliché when it should tear at the sinews of our mortality. So most of these changes appear more cosmetic than fresh or profound.

The director, however, has assembled an outstanding cast. Adkins, in his quiet vulnerability, is capable of steadfast rage that grows quite arresting as the action progresses. All the other actors deliver capable performances: Kevin Gudahl is a rigorous hind-saving Claudius; Barbara E. Robertson an ambitious yet genuinely tormented Gertrude; John Reeger a grounded Polonius despite his character’s blustering nature; Timothy Hendrickson a loyal but slightly nerdy Horatio; and Lance Baker and Brian Hamman as the duplicitous yet emotionally torn Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Nevertheless, they never shook the fibers of my being or made me experience any fierce connection to their characters’ multilayered plights. The sterility of the staging simply kept pushing me out of the playing space – despite the fact that the scenery engulfs the audience. Most disturbing are Lee’s funky, ambiguous costumes. They are gauche concoctions that combine neon purples, satiny and rubber-like fabrics with the anticlimactic lime-green fencing suits and thick black-rubber shoes Hamlet and Laertes don for their lackluster match to the death.

So we’re left with a dazzling hyper-design-conscious staging, packed with sleek contemporary touches, that forgets to illuminate the deepest recesses of the human spirit. •

"Hamlet" runs through March 31 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis. Tickets: $28-$40. Call 773-753-4472 or log onto
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