review: hamlet

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-HAMLET.html]

HAMLET

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Terry Hands
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Navy Pier / (312) 595-5600
www.chicagoshakes.com
Through November 18, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 10, 2006

Any review of “Hamlet” is a daunting task. The art of director and designer Terry Hands and the other performers behind the scenes and on the boards animating the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre‘s current production of “Hamlet” overcomes that burden. This production inspires wonder. This production is mesmerizing, illuminating, riveting, fast paced, and absolutely clear. That said, let’s get down to specifics.

A quick run through the plot: Denmark’s King Hamlet (Bruce A. Young as his ghost) has recently died under confusing circumstances leaving his Queen Gertrude (Barbara Robertson) and Prince Hamlet (Ben Carlson), old enough to woo a young Ophelia (Lindsay Gould), but not yet old enough to rule. Gertrude marries dead husband’s brother Claudius (Bruce A. Young again) within months, and Hamlet suspects foul play. The action of the play is Hamlet’s struggle with suspicions about the ambitions of his uncle, his mother, his girlfriend, himself. Hamlet artfully uses the world of the theatre and a band of actors performing for the royal court to dramatize his suspicions (enacting a story in which a queen’s first husband is killed by her second). Claudius is enraged and sends Hamlet to England; Hamlet returns when he discovers orders for his death signed by Claudius. In the end, through murder, suicide, and poisoned wine and sword tips, Hamlet’s girlfriend, her father Polonius (Mike Nussbaum), two young princes of Denmark (Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother Laertes, Andrew Ahrens) as well as Hamlet’s uncle and mother are all dead. We as an audience see and feel not a blood bath but the troubling aftermath of passions and ambitions run amok.

Dramatically, this production is instructive and illuminating and inspiring. Ben Carlson crafts an adult Hamlet, resentful but not whining, who early finds his voice takes us along on an intriguing journey. Full of humor, with a vocal quality that happily evokes comparisons to Kenneth Branaugh, Carlson illuminates rather than indicates, finds new meanings in old familiar stories, and allows us to sidle up to the familiar speeches with comfort and then surprise and new understandings. Barbara Robertson brings a solid sensuality to Queen Gertrude. Bruce A. Young as King Hamlet’s Ghost and Claudius commands the stage and embodies an energy that explains Gertrude’s decision to remarry – this is a compelling and attractive man. Andrew Ahrens lends just the right combination of ambition and earnest anger and brotherly loyalty to Laertes, as well as a genuine gift in the fencing scene with Hamlet in the plays final minutes (beautifully choreographed by Robin H. McFarquhar). Mike Nussbaum finds humor and pathos in Polonius, and we miss his presence for many reasons when his character is the first to be dispatched. Lindsay Gould makes an achingly delicate Ophelia. Wendy Robie‘s Player Queen and James Harms‘ First Player illustrate the solid attention to masterful performances at all levels in CST productions — they shine in their essential “play within a play” moments. The balance of the extensive company is strong.

We efficiently pass through the elements of this fabulous production. The experience is crafted into two sections broken by a single intermission – part one in two hours takes us through the death of Polonius and Hamlet’s departure for England, and part two resumes with Ophelia’s mad scene and an hour later leaves a stage strewn with royal bodies. Visually, we are riveted from the first moment and, without pause, through the end of the swiftly moving three hour experience. Full disclosure: I adore spare, clean, intriguingly lit, focused theatre, and this production delivers on all counts. Terry Hands’ lights and Mark Bailey‘s set and costumes create a streamlined world in which life and death and passion and ambition and humor (surprising amounts of humor) play out beautifully.

Lighting design by Mr. Hands and associate Julie Duro is gasp inducing. The designers have created a number of worlds, including twinkling fairy lights reflected back at the audience by large opaque panels that pivot and transform from their posts as solo columns to solid walls. Sometimes these panels act as scrims through which slightly murky action emerges, in frames from another world (e.g. the two appearances of King Hamlet’s ghost); sometimes these panels disappear entirely and a broad light panel, the size of the full backstage area, completely upstage, provides a sudden stark illumination source for the sometimes shadowy figures that march before it. Spot lights at times illuminate five locations at the back of the stage at times, leading us to think about the House of Denmark and the individuals who are leading and challenging it. The marrying of director of action and artist of light helps to raise questions that both accompany and augment the embodied action of the characters on the stage. We at times see the dreamy reflective dark floor and shimmering backdrop and elegantly moving characters in stark white costumes (imagining Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in MGM’s “Broadway Melody of 1940”). Other scenes evoke “A Chorus Line” and “Cabaret” with the suggestive use of reflective panels suddenly and dramatically assembled as a full wall of mirrors starkly reflecting the characters to themselves and to us.

Costumes executed by set designer Mark Bailey augment the production beautifully. His strategic use of colors — black, whites, greys, reds and golds — all signal and reflect character dimensions in the play. When most characters are in creamy textured brocaded whites, Hamlet in the first section wears a stark black overcoat; the visiting actors enter in their grey civilian clothes slightly highlighted by reds, reflecting a middle world in which they dwell; in performance these same actors as actor characters introduce bright reds and golds to the mix; and when Hamlet finally dons off white in the plays final scenes upon his return to Denmark, the balance of the royal characters are now fully cloaked in somber blacks. The drape of the fabric and the striking color choices illuminate rather than distract, in fabulous directions – you will find your own patterns to follow and meanings in these design choices.

This is a well paced and delightfully designed treat for the eye and the ear. A “Hamlet” to be remembered.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 10, 2006)

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