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For months now, alternate-universe versions of the melancholy Dane have been skulking across various D.C. stages, hurling themselves against the furniture, heaving their wet, world-weary sighs, and taking out their existential anger on their mother’s drapes. Back in March, the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv brought its modern-Hebrew adaptation to Signature for only five performances. Synetic is currently re-staging its own wordless version. And at Studio, Tom Stoppard’s humorously hammy iteration of the Prince of Denmark will be running tortuous logical circles around Rosencrantz and Gildenstern for a couple more weeks.
But all of those respective Hamlets—Semitic, silent, and spoofy—have other interests besides the music of Shakespeare’s original language and so exist as variations on a theme. Now that the six-month-long Shakespeare in Washington festival is drawing to a close, it’s perhaps inevitable that we look to the Shakespeare Theatre, and Artistic Director Michael Kahn, to deliver unto us the real thing, complete with iambs, alarums, and climactic mass exeunt.
And that’s pretty much what we get, a straight-up modern-dress take on Shakespeare’s most popular play benefiting from the company’s deep talent pool—and deep pockets. The tracks of Kahn’s last production of the play, five years ago, are still fresh on the ground, but this staging is by no means a re-tread. The company’s done its characteristic deep meditation on the text and come away with fresh moments that enliven Shakespeare’s oft-heard words. Those moments tend to be small, and they range from the ingenious (the one-two punch of puppetry and Kabuki that Hamlet uses to catch the King’s conscience) to the too-clever-by-half (a fellow player’s cell phone interrupts the First Player as he prepares to declaim). But they are many, and most of them open up the production in satisfying, unexpected ways.
Certainly Walt Spangler’s austere, wintry set establishes the mood with great economy of form: Huge glass walls filled with swirling gray smoke glide silently over the floorboards to suggest the halls of a castle keep, the windows of a corner office, or the slate-gray tile of a bathroom. When set against these impressive creations, the gnarled branches that snake their way down to the stage take on the appearance of cracks in some massive foundation. It just feels right.
So, for the most part, do the performances, which are marked by subtle shadings and interesting choices. Michelle Beck plays up Ophelia’s youth, not her much-vaunted chastity, which helps keep the character from coming off simpering and saccharine-sweet. Robert Jason Jackson’s Polonius is bluff, officious, and proud, but he is not a fool. He knows when he’s being mocked, and Jackson lets us see that knowledge play across his features. As smiling villain Claudius, Robert Cuccioli emphasizes shrewd and calculating over desperate and conscience-stricken, all to good, unfussy effect, and Janet Zarish’s Gertrude takes Ophelia’s death as a cue to go a bit further ’round the bend than most Gertrudes go, and she sells it.
Ted van Griethuysen does a turn as a hayseed Gravedigger with dead-on comic timing, another as a Player who knows his way around a Kabuki fan, and still another as the Ghost. The Ghost segments are underwhelming—deliberately, it seems. Kahn makes a few half-hearted feints toward stage magic, but overall this is as naturalistic as the unnatural can get. Bereft of even an introductory flash of lightning, Griethuysen’s delivery is noticeably muted in these scenes, as if the Ghost is begrudging the fact that the production has stolen his thunder.
At the production’s center, Jeffrey Carlson’s Hamlet exudes—and he exudes it all over the stage, long before it comes time to feign madness—something well beyond mere melancholy: This is a kid in the grip of soul-wracking despair. Other Hamlets brood, Carlson’s fumes. And spits. And flails. He’s kind of a spaz, come to think of it.
Clutching absently at his untucked and unkempt boarding-school uniform, Carlson reels from scene to scene in a slough of considerably twitchy despond. He yelps, slaps his forehead, pulls his hair, rubs his eyes, and giggles to himself. It’s as if one of Alan Bennett’s History Boys had stumbled into the Lansburgh, tweaked out of his mind, and clambered onstage. (After the intermission, Carlson gets slightly more centered and allows this antic disposition to grow less frantic.)
It’s unquestionably a brave, batshit-crazy performance that’s interesting to watch, if not entirely successful. For one thing, it’s so outsized that it sends your mind spinning off down avenues the Bard probably would have preferred blocked off. Carlson makes you realize, for example, that Hamlet—this Hamlet, anyway, who can’t even pick up one of the Player’s prop swords without flinching and collapsing into a heap—would make one seriously lousy king. When you find yourself idly thinking that Claudius’ bloody usurpation allowed Denmark to dodge a bullet, something’s wrong.
Still, Carlson’s performance increases the opportunities to play up Hamlet’s frail nature for bits of physical comedy and ironic asides, of which there are plenty, and they work. It’s the first time I’ve noticed Hamlet’s description of Claudius as “My father’s brother, but no more like my father/Than I to Hercules” getting a laugh.
Carlson’s petulant, privileged tone and propensity to stamp his foot when frustrated certainly underscores Hamlet’s fecklessness. This goes some distance toward explaining the text’s perennial head-scratcher: why he spends so much time fretting instead of filleting. In the end, I guess I prefer the classic Comp Lit explanations—stuff like guilt, fear of perdition, Oedipal obsession—to the one this production seems to get so squarely behind: that Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a pussy.