By SUZI STEFFEN
ASHLAND – Every production of Hamlet that theater fans see is strengthened by the one before it. Or maybe it’s complicated by the previous one – or is it just affected? Even non-Shakespeare fans or non-Hamlet addicts know many of the play’s words in snatches, in pieces of lines that we all say, not needing the origin story of “to sleep, perchance to dream” or “sweets to the sweet.”
Add in the past few decades of contemporary theater and digital narratives: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I Hate Hamlet, Fortinbras, that “more ketchup!” scene from Grease II, The Lion King, the first seven episodes of the (deservedly legendary) Canadian show Slings and Arrows, not to mention a zombie Hamlet or two and the many movies of the play itself, and you’ve got cultural freight that looms around any major English-language production.
(Spoiler alert: Hamlet has a relatively high body count, which I’ll be discussing in the review, along with a few other plot points. If Hamlet’s plot is something you don’t want to know before you see the show, please wait until after you see it to read this.)
At this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet, there’s an added challenge, common to summer Shakespeare festivals everywhere: Creating a meaningful, tight Hamlet in the airy beauty of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Hamlet is an intimate court play, a two-family tragedy that has an impact on an entire region. Director Lisa Peterson and sound designer/co-composer Paul James Prendergast deal with these questions, and the specific design options of the space, by employing a guitarist and musical collaborator to set what this year’s Hamlet, Danforth Comins, called “an aural soundscape” for the play.
That collaborator is festival stage ops/sound technician and musician Scott Kelly, also a co-composer, who performs as the animating spirit of the play from the middle balcony, his musical gear hanging on a contemporary metal grid behind him. He starts scenes, breathes in tandem with the characters, plays ominous notes, occasionally amplifies Hamlet’s lines, emphasizes what Old Hamlet (Richard Howard) says, and underlines the action on stage.
Does this work? Sometimes. This Hamlet is not set in modern times for the most part, and the jarring visual of having electric guitars onstage doesn’t fade as the play continues. When Comins’s Prince Hamlet in his broodier, whinier moments goes to fiddle around on his own guitars, that does ring true, and there’s a late moment with Claudius (Michael Elich, powerful and gleefully evil in his prettily patterned white costumes) and one of Hamlet’s guitars that is clearly a reference to Claudius’s smashing of Hamlet’s royal birthright. The director says in an OSF video, “Hamlet is in crisis from the beginning of the play until the end,” and the sometimes dissonant, often ominous music represents not only Hamlet’s turmoil but also the chaotic kingdom, where a son doesn’t inherit from his father because the father’s murderer stages a quiet coup.
A short digression: By rights, Hamlet and his college buddies should be winning over Marcellus and Barnardo and any other soldiers to attack Elsinore and take it back from the usurper Claudius, who has no right to be king in a patrilineal monarchy where a king has a male heir. Instead, of course, they’re desperate to head back to college in France or Wittenburg, or to follow Hamlet around as sycophants who are willing to spy for beer money. This is one of the central oddities of the play, but that drama is mostly offstage.
Comins is an understated Hamlet. He often lets us see when his characters listen before they respond. His Hamlet, when he’s not too upset, takes subtle, slight pauses before he speaks, calculating whether to display madness for Polonius or skewer the lies of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Comins’s Hamlet is clever, but he’s also a man buffeted by the actions of others, reactive and impulsive and privileged (as an only child who’s the heir to a kingdom likely would be). His best friend Horatio (a reassuringly wonderful Christiana Clark, who also played Beatrice to Comins’s Benedick in 2015’s Much Ado About Nothing) tries to hold him back at Ophelia’s graveside, and for that matter tries to hold him back when Laertes challenges him, but her wiser, cooler, affectionate words do not prevail. Her mournful statements at Hamlet’s death are all the sadder for the fact that she tried so hard to turn her best friend away from his fatal flaw.
Derrick Lee Weeden’s Polonius is one of the many reasons to see this production. Was this role tailor-made for Weeden? He embodies Polonius beautifully, hemming and hawing at the right moments, pushing up his glasses, using that gorgeous voice as he worries for his son heading to France and his daughter, whom the prince seems to be aiming to use for sex, then getting things both right and fatally wrong about who and what might be disordered in the castle. (The production does not emphasize, but no one in the U.S. can pretend not to notice, that Polonius, a black man, is a servant – though a high-status one – to a white king, and that king’s screwed-up family, and that when the white family collapses, it takes the black family down with it.)
Speaking of Polonius’s family, Ophelia is played by Jennie Greenberry, and if you didn’t see her fine and moving performance in Pericles last year (or in one of the many places that Pericles stopped after it left the OSF), you can’t miss her skill in this production. Her Ophelia is confused and sad but also disgusted by Prince Hamlet’s actions toward her, and since he (in a decision that continues to be depressing each time I see the play) chooses to use Ophelia instead of taking her into his confidence about his “madness,” she has no defenses when the worst happens. Greenberry has a lovely singing voice, and she uses it to convey the depth of her anguish after her father’s death and Hamlet’s departure for England.
This production has ostentatiously lovely costumes and fine music and gorgeously designed and controlled lighting, including a strobe effect on Old Hamlet, but the build-up to the final carnage is quiet and relentless. Claudius and Laertes plot; Gertrude stews; Hamlet discusses next steps with Horatio before Claudius’s plans overtake him. As Hamlet says, “The readiness is all.”
On opening night, the clouds opened up and let loose a steady shower during the second half of the production, and the fight scenes seemed slowed down (I’d never seen anyone throw a chair at half-speed before). It was an almost bizarrely calm sword-and-dagger, poisoned-chalice-and-sword duel between Hamlet and Laertes (Tramell Tillman). The stage ops staff laid down carpeting offstage so the actors could dry their shoes between appearances, and the water fell in slow sheets under the lights, punctuating the music and sounds of the scene with the percussive plops of droplets hitting rain coat hoods. The melancholy nature of the final carnage was only heightened with our drenching.
Why are Hamlet addicts* so into this play? We spend hours discussing why Gertrude didn’t take more action if she truly overheard Claudius plotting with Laertes (as this production seems to indicate), whether Ophelia has enough agency and how to get her more in an alternative production, how the palace guards might feel guilt about not heading off Claudius’s usurpation, whether Hamlet could have raised an army and taken the kingdom early on, whether Laertes could successfully have raised his own army to rebel against Claudius after Hamlet kills Polonius, what Horatio was doing in Elsinore during Hamlet’s crossing to England and back, whether Ophelia was pregnant when she died and so, so much more. It’s rich on the page and rich on the stage, and no time spent with this Hamlet will be wasted.
This production is part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Shakespeare in American Communities program, which aims to get more Shakespeare in front of more middle and high school students. May some of them, whether they love “death metal Hamlet” or know the big lines (hint: Do brush up on the monologues before you go), fall in love with the fire sticks or the Ghost’s light, the comedy of the sarcastic Gravedigger or the tragedy that envelops Denmark, and never let go.
* Let me admit that I am addicted to Hamlet, and once, in a Shakespeare class at the University of Missouri when I was 18, wrote a “special project” Grendel-like short story in which Claudius was (young) Hamlet’s real father and (old) Hamlet had essentially forced Gertrude to marry him even though she was always in love with his younger brother.
- OSF’s Hamlet continues through October 14 on the open-air stage of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland. Ticket and schedule information here.
- Read Suzi Steffen’s interview with Hamlet star Danforth Comins here.
- Read Steffen’s review of OSF’s Vietgone here.
- Read Steffen’s reviews of the Shakespeare festival’s first four shows in the 2016 season (Twelfth Night, The Yeomen of the Guard, Great Expectations, The River Bride) here.