Review of Hamlet at Hartford Stage Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play of machinations and subterfuge, of, as director Darko Tresnjak points out, surveillance and spying. “Something is rotten” in the state of Denmark and there can be little hope for a happy outcome. As everyone knows, the body count is high at play’s end. And it’s such a theatrical play that we may find ourselves somewhat detached from all those deaths. That, it seems to me, is the struggle for any production that wants to stage Hamlet faithfully, to make us feel how tragically ill-at-heart Elsinore is.
Tresnjak’s production at Hartford Stage is vibrant and entertaining, but the rottenness seems somewhat remote. In part that’s due to the wide-open staging—consisting primarily of large, attractive platforms of tiles that form a cross and take on different colors in different scenes—which mitigates the shadowy and claustrophobic aspects of the place Hamlet calls “a prison.” We have no arras for spies to hide behind, no walls at all—except for cut-outs of curtains that drop down for a few scenes, such as the play within the play. The openness of the staging makes this a Hamlet in a goldfishbowl, with plenty of empty space that Tresnjak and his company are very skilled at filling. The rhythms and movements of the play are a distinct pleasure, but, at the same time, the play’s “darker purpose” seems to elude the production.
The production’s greatest strength lies in its assumption of an audience. Tresnjak lets his actors speak with our presence in mind—Hamlet when alone confides in us; Ophelia, in her madness, gives a flower to a spectator—and that goes a long way toward implicating us, so that the cruciform stage seems significant. For we have here a kind of Passion Play, a story enacted before us to show us how a play may “catch the conscience” and how, in the end, all are “hoist upon [their] own petard.” For all their busy machinations lead to the undoing of the schemers, even Hamlet. Indeed, Tresnjak’s final tableau may make us consider why the outcome is what it is, and what we are to make, ultimately, of the Ghost’s summons for rough justice. And that, we see, is what Hamlet must consider. This is not a Hamlet beset by irresolution, so much as he is worried about the implications of his actions. He’s a modern character—with conscience and scruples—existing in a Revenge play, so that here the obstacles to matching a murder with a murder are internal more than external.
Of course, any production of Hamlet takes much of its tone from its Hamlet. Zach Appelman is a forthright Prince, energetic, amusing, with enough hint of the scholar to keep before us Hamlet’s reputation as a thinker. He reads, he writes love poems, he fences, he is the “most observed of all observers,” as Ophelia says. Commanded to stay at Elsinore and dance attendance on his despised uncle now the King, this Hamlet bristles more than he mopes. He finds what entertainment he can in scheming and in dressing-down with his superior airs and his “antic disposition” the tiresome court personages, including the obsequious Rosencrantz (Curtis Billings) and Guildenstern (Cliff Miller). While I would have my Hamlet a bit more caustic and conflicted, Appelman does justice to Hamlet’s sense of humor, which is made sharper by the fact that Tresnjak’s cast doesn’t overplay the absurdity of Polonius or the other courtiers. They are simply a little slow on the uptake and, though spies for the King, are just doing their duty and may even be generally interested in what ails Hamlet. To Hamlet is left the problem of being Hamlet in this new dispensation, with only a ghost of a father to direct him. The reading of “to be or not to be” seems less a contemplation of suicide and more a disquisition on why life is worth clinging to no matter how much it disappoints us.
Indeed, this is a hopeful Hamlet, full of conviction that, no matter how “dull and muddy-meddled” he may be, he will by indirections find direction out, and Appelman keeps the audience with him all the way. As Hamlet’s nemesis Claudius, Andrew Long is not evil so much as pragmatic. He can be full of himself and overbearing, but Long lets a certain likeable lightness of tone come into play at interesting points—such as his prayer speech—so that we believe he and Hamlet truly are related. As Hamlet’s mother, Kate Forbes gives us a Gertrude slightly distracted—having lost and gained a husband so quickly, she seems to be on the point of reconsidering everything. There are pointed moments when we can tell her will has separated from her current husband, and her scene with Hamlet in her chambers maintains a regal dignity that often gets sacrificed to histrionics—the expression on her face when Hamlet tells her that, for her, “the heyday in the blood is tame” is worth volumes.
The histrionics are left to Ophelia, and Brittany Vicars manifests a rather shrill love interest for the Prince. The mad scene makes Ophelia’s snatches of bawdry sound like dirges all, a fulsome mourning that, while adding gravitas to the “prating knave” Polonius, misses a chance to register Ophelia’s own pointed dissatisfaction with the hierarchy at Elsinore. Edward James Hyland is a dignified Polonius, even when he’s being mocked, and Anthony Roach’s Laertes is the young puppet of greater men, while James Seol’s Horatio seems oddly detached as though he has somewhere else to be. Long also doubles as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, and provides a commanding presence, full of great voice. Tresjnak delays the entrance of the Ghost and when he appears he has the look of a martial statue, giving us a lasting glimpse of the “majesty of buried Denmark.”
The open trap in the stage that does various offices—as Ophelia’s grave, as Polonius’s hiding place, as the pit into which Hamlet, in pursuit of the Ghost, descends—struck me as a bit awkward. It’s hard to register the earthiness of the grave-digging with such a set, though Floyd King’s Gravedigger is all one could wish, and the struggle between Laertes and Hamlet seems not to be in a grave so much as at the door of a crypt. On the plus side, this Hamlet moves smoothly through segments that can drag—such as Hamlet among the players—and Tresjnak makes Hamlet’s awareness of Claudius and Polonius spying on his colloquy with Ophelia comically obvious. The duel to the death is well-staged too, since for Hamlet it’s simply play while for Laertes it’s do or die—until receiving a wound inspires Hamlet to swordplay in earnest.
All in all, a goodly presentation—with traditional Costumes by Fabio Toblini, all ruffs and breeches and layered gowns—that keep before us the sumptuous life at court in somewhat cartoonish colors that offset Hamlet's suit of solid black, and the Lighting by Matthew Richards gives us many moods and spaces in quite remarkable fashion. Above all, this Hamlet is fun to watch and true to itself.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Scenic Design: Darko Tresnjak; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Brandalyn Fulton; Associate Scenic Designer: Colin McGurk; Voice and Text Coach: Claudia Hill Sparks; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Production Stage Manager: Renee Lutz; Assistant Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombbe; Associate Artistic Director: Maxwell Williams
Hartford Stage October 16-November 16, 2014