Hamlet is so familiar that if a director and actors can really get an audience to listen to the play, to make us hear it anew, then they've accomplished something to be proud of. Such is emphatically the case with Dreamscape Theatre's excellent revival of Shakespeare's most famous play, which boasts clear, smart direction by Ross Williams and a nine-person cast who bring even the most minor characters to vivid life. Indeed, intentionally or not, Williams and his crew seem to have spent the most time on the segments of the play that generally get overlooked (or cut) in other productions, showing us the world around the Melancholy Dane with illuminating texture and depth. At the same time, they remain focused on telling the story—a gripping, fascinating tale of ghosts and vendettas—with unencumbered forthrightness. Nothing feels imposed on Shakespeare here; this is a Hamlet that lets it audience draw conclusions about what this awesome tragedy might ultimately signify.
Here's what I learned about the play after experiencing Williams's staging. Hamlet is about a man, Claudius, who kills his brother, marries his brother's widow, and then usurps his crown. Hamlet, the new king's nephew (now stepson), is instructed by his father's ghost to avenge the murder. The king's chief advisor, Polonius, instructs his daughter Ophelia to repel Hamlet's honestly-felt advances; when this rejection melds with Hamlet's own disgust about his mother's apparent betrayal of his father, he cruelly mocks Ophelia (and leads her, indirectly, down a path of insanity and then suicide). Meanwhile, King Claudius's enemy, young Fortinbras of Norway, finds a way to avenge the death of his father at the hands of Hamlet's father. In every case, the children in this play are loyal to their parents and forthright in their emotions and deeds; while their elders prove treacherous and duplicitous, all-too-ready to dispatch any of the youngsters for personal or political gain. Williams doesn't punch up this idea, but it's omnipresent in his production: take from it what you will about, perhaps, the current state of our own country. ("Something is rotten in Denmark," someone famously says in the play; maybe the same is true about America in 2005.)
Williams uses the tiny Manhattan Theatre Source stage masterfully, arranging the audience around the main playing area, with pockets of playing space stuffed into corners here and there; this puts the drama literally inches from everyone's face, engaging and investing us into the story with real potency. (He solves the problem of how to stage the climactic duel between Hamlet and Polonius's son Laertes in such a small area with real ingenuity, too.)
He's cast the play extremely well. The ghost of Hamlet's father, the troupe of players who unknowingly assist Hamlet in trapping Claudius, and the ominous invader Fortinbras are all played by the entire company, which makes these presences both weightier and more ethereal than any of the others: an inspired touch.
Carmelle Arad and Rodney Lizcano comprise a sort of two-person chorus, taking well over a dozen roles between them, including a host of minor personalities who they wring rather largely (Osric, various messengers and guards); their main job, though, is to embody Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and I can't remember these two ever seeming more lively and interesting. I was particularly struck by the energy and warm good humor of their first scene with Hamlet, right after their arrival in Elsinore at the behest of Claudius and his queen, Gertrude: these two really do seem to be old friends of Hamlet, and as he pulls the truth of their purpose out of them, something actually seems to be at stake.
Todd Faulkner, Michael E. Lopez, and Jane Titus are suitably commanding and cold-hearted as Claudius, Polonius, and Gertrude, respectively. Titus shows us glimmers of residual affection for Hamlet, but makes it clear where her allegiance lies—until, at the very end, she understands what her new husband is capable of and she begins to recoil. (When she drinks the tainted brew that Claudius has intended for Hamlet in the final scene, for the first time ever I wondered if Gertrude might be deliberately taking her own life.) Lopez perhaps overdoes the Polonius-as-old-fool shtick in scenes with Hamlet and the King and Queen; but his gruff, alienating manner in scenes with Ophelia and Laertes feels perfect: the long, famous monologue in which he instructs his son on the ways of the world (ending, so ironically, with "To thine own self be true") has never seemed more glibly hypocritical.
Simon Kendall gives us a straight-as-an-arrow Laertes and Kevin Brewer is stalwart in the comparatively thankless role of Horatio, Hamlet's friend and confidant. As Ophelia, Bridget Crawford is terrifically compelling, showing us a very simple-hearted girl who is in love with a glamorous prince yet dutiful to a beloved (if difficult) father.
In the marathon title role, Zack Calhoon gives a fine, brave, intelligent performance. He's a young actor, about the age that Hamlet is supposed to be, which is by itself exciting; he's immensely likable and gets us to root for him to do a good job in this so-difficult role, and then pulls it off. He's best in the least familiar scenes, like the ones with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern or Horatio. This role has more impossibly famous speeches and lines than any other in the Western canon, I think; Calhoon negotiates skillfully through most of them, and if he doesn't always make them sound new or fresh, well, that would be a tall order indeed. (At the performance reviewed, he stumbled over his words only once—on the line "trippingly on the tongue" of all places. His recovery was delightfully assured and good-humored.) I felt admiration for Calhoon throughout—what a great opportunity for a young actor to get to tackle this Everest of roles! He will learn much from this experience.
This Hamlet is so good that its one serious misstep—the device of having Hamlet remove boards from the floor just before intermission, during his last scene with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern—stands out as a weird aberration: why has Williams included this distracting and mysterious bit of business?
But, this one problem aside, this is a commendably clear and accessible take on a complex and difficult play. Williams's staging showcases the play's immense greatness, and also reveals unabashedly some of its problems (e.g., the frequent wordplay, which apparently Elizabethan audiences thought was hilarious, but which seldom captivates today; the relentless over-the-top/melodramatic carnage of the final scenes). I love this production because it gives us the play, as is. Is it, as Williams suggests in his program note, the greatest English-language drama? Williams and his colleagues at Dreamscape Theatre give us everything we need in order to decide.