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Something is most certainly rotten in Denmark: For Kasi Campbell’s Rep Stage production, designer Tony Cisek has imagined Elsinore less as a castle than as a crypt, a dark stone tomb with a grave yawning at its center and a mound of bone-strewn churchyard earth at its foundations, and you can almost smell the carrion stink rising.
But more than that, something’s uncertain there. Lots of things, actually: A king has died, remember, and his widow has married his brother, and the unsteady politics of the business has left the nobility a little jumpy, but the ambitious upstart on their borders has left ’em no room to argue. And the exhausted-looking young prince who should perhaps have had the throne, who sits literally on the edge of the abyss as the lights come up, tells us, first thing, that “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth.”
From the outset of this swift-moving nightmare, Karl Miller’s Hamlet is a man whose mood is frighteningly, inexplicably dark and whose agile mind is so busy searching for reasons that he’s beginning to get lost in his own head. He flinches, almost convulsively, when someone touches him; let a noise startle him, and he’ll likely as not wind up sprawled on the floor. That opening speech sounds here like an expression of pure despair, with none of the calculation, none of the double meanings that can haunt it in its usual place later in the play, after the prince has been drafted into a revenge plot by the ghost of his murdered father: This Hamlet hasn’t just lost his mirth, he’s just lost, and if he doesn’t find his bearings soon, he’s going to lose his mind. The tragedy, in Campbell and Miller’s reading, is that the only set of bearings fate and that ghost offer him is one that marks out a repugnantly bloody path.
There’s plenty of drama in any production of Hamlet, so maybe what’s remarkable about this one is how many times it manages to clutch you by the throat. James Denville’s first appearance as the Ghost is one of those moments, a nice visual metaphor for the way death turns up too often, surprising us with an embrace we’re not ready for. Likewise Miller’s graveyard discourse with the skull of the long-dead jester Yorick; to describe exactly how the actor manifests Hamlet’s bottled-up anguish about the impermanence of the marks we make would be to deprive readers of the chill that walked catlike up my spine as I watched, so let’s just say Miller’s reflections on mortality don’t take the rueful route.
Other moments, alas, don’t work as well. There’s as much brutality as you might expect when Miller’s jittery, angry princeling lashes out at Kathleen Coons’ Ophelia with that famous business about getting on along to a nunnery, but there’s precious little heartbreak, no sense that the two have a real relationship that’s being shattered just this moment. Nor is there much going on in the confessional scene; Nigel Reed’s Claudius seems oddly benign throughout the evening, in fact, so his guilty admission and his passing moment of conscience don’t register. (It’s also one of the few scenes in which the production’s otherwise intriguing surrealism about things like space and sound doesn’t work; Miller’s hair-trigger Hamlet simply gets too close, and too loud, while Claudius kneels praying.) Valerie Leonard’s Gertrude has more presence, though the production seems uncertain about the character’s sexual charge; it’s there in some of her exchanges with Claudius, and it’s there in her grand bearing and in the expanse of cleavage Kathleen Geldard’s costumes frame, but forget the Freudian undertones that often add such crackle to her scenes with Hamlet. She’s focused on her new husband—which seems off somehow, given Reed’s mild portrayal.
Welcome hilarity attends the scenes involving what would appear to be two refugees from the Wittenberg chapter of Alpha Gamma Rosencrantz: James Flanagan and Brandon McCoy make their earliest entrance with a bit of foolery involving the best seats in the throne room, and the slapstick lets up only rarely when they’re onstage. And Campbell, knowing it’s always good to keep a sprawling show moving snappily along, threads more quick-witted comedy into the scenes with the traveling players, giving her Hamlet a chance to flash the lively temperament that’s made him what we’re told is the population’s favorite royal.
Other supporting players flesh things out nicely: Aubrey Deeker’s winsome, worried Horatio, Lawrence Redmond’s crisp Polonius, and Daniel Frith’s coltish Laertes (who was obviously fighting a cold on press night) make for a younger set of courtiers than you usually get, but it all fits sensibly enough in a production decked out in modern dress and built around the 27-year-old Miller.
Who, it bears repeating, is eerily, strangely watchable—so much so, it’s true, that the production sometimes feels a little out of balance. His Hamlet is so intense, so busy with subtext and with the thunder in his brain that he seems sometimes to occupy a world apart from the mere mortals inhabiting Campbell’s haunted Elsinore. Then again, this is a man who hears ghosts, who gets tapped by fate to straddle, again and again, that grave that gapes at the center of the stage. Perhaps a little otherworldliness is in order—and the rest of Denmark needs to find a way to meet him halfway there.CP