Hamlet is known to be one of the most complicated characters in all of Shakespeare’s canon, and as Tony-Award winning director Darko Tresnjak’s gripping and vibrant production of the classic play of the same name that opened on Friday, October 24 at Hartford Stage lets us see, one of the most entertaining characters as well.
To achieve that result, Tresnjak,the Artistic Director of Hartford Stage, has cast a charismatic young actor named Zach Appelman in the title role, who after some petulant stubborness in the opening scene, serves as a sort-of master of ceremonies, confiding conspiratorially to the audience his plans to avenge the murder of his father, the King of Denmark, by his uncle Claudius, and his mother Gertrude’s subsequent marriage to her usurping brother-in-law after less than two months of mourning. By casting such a young Hamlet, the conflicted Prince’s mood swings become surprisingly believable. We see a young man in that shaky realm between the end of an obviously privileged and protected adolescence and an impending maturity, complicated by the rush of emotions engendered by his recent family tragedy.
As a result, we are treated to a Hamlet who in addition to being energetic and youthfully appealing is also angry, vengeful, sarcastic, condescending, arrogant, and suspicious. Though we’re on his side as he seeks to mete out the appropriate justice and we find ourselves hoping against hope that he’ll be able to achieve his goal, Appelman lets us also experience firsthand just how exasperating Hamlet can be. Appelman is the genuine find here, an actor capable of the heroic, but also able to get so deeply into his character that virtually every line, even every word, is suffused with meaning and feeling. He also speaks his lines with remarkable clarity, so that every speech can be heard and understood even in the farthest reaches of the theater.
Appelman’s Hamlet can be tightly coiled as well, especially in the early scenes, when it’s clear that Hamlet doesn’t quite know what to do all with all the grief, distrust and anger that is swelling up inside of him. It’s only when he ultimately encounters the ghost of his father, in a brilliant scene that unexpectedly builds to a deliciously over-the-top moment of visual exuberance, that he receives the permission he needs to throw his caution to the wind and pursue his inexorable path of vengeance. It is stunning and even somewhat heartbreaking to watch Appelman as his Hamlet becomes increasingly careless in his actions and allows his darker emotions to color even his interactions with poor Ophelia who really means him no harm, but must nonetheless bear the brunt of his single minded obsessiveness.
As a play, “Hamlet” does have its share of funny, or rather, amusing moments, and Tresnjak does nothing to downplay them. The audience, however, seems reluctant to laugh, especially in the early going, perhaps not realizing that many of Hamlet’s lines are indeed meant to be funny in the way that a witty intellectual would play with words and phrases that frequently designed to zip over the heads of those he is mocking.
As Tresnjak has demonstrated in previous Shakespearean outings, he likes to maintain a steady pace that keeps the production moving almost as if, to borrow a term from film, we’re experiencing a single take. The set, which he designed, is deceptively simple: a cross along the thrust stage’s floor, raised perhaps a foot or so off the ground, to allow for some contrasts in height, covered in diagonally arranged squares that can be lit from underneath to provide just the right amount of regal atmosphere. There are two benches along the sides of the cross and Tresnjak employs three trap doors at the edges of the cross for several significant moments. (It’s clear from his “Twelfth Night” of several years ago that Tresnjak has a special affinity for effectively using space beneath the stage to create unique and thrilling visuals.)
In addition to casting his “Hamlet” with age-appropriate actors, Tresnjak sets his version in the Elizabethan period in which it was written. His expert costumer designer, Fabio Toblini, has created sets of Elizabethan coats and outfits that signify nobles, guardsmen, and students, many featuring neat variations on the classic Elizabethan ruff (collar). Claudius and Gertrude are given spectacularly elaborate and colorful costumes, while Hamlet is dressed initially in tight compact black and later provided with a billowing white shirt. The visiting players arrive in suitably rustic attire, but quickly change into their more theatrical flair that showcases the aspirations of their outfits to suggest the more regal fare of their audience. Mathew Richards’ lighting design is stunningly evocative, capturing the sense of mystery and wonder that surrounds the night watch’s vision of Hamlet’s father, the wet, damp feel of castle Elsinore, and the vividness and humor of Hamlet’s rewrite of “The Murder of Gonzago,” designed to entrap his uncle and his mother in their lies. There are also a few pleasant surprises that result from some of the hidden capabilities of the lighting beneath the cross that lead to some especially stunning images.
Among the other actors, Andrew Long creates a strong, studied Claudius, constantly working to consolidate his power seemingly ruthlessly, yet revealing a rampant, unforgiving guilt in the famous prayer scene when Hamlet almost kills his uncle, yet realizes he would be sending him straight to heaven. Tresnjak, in an atypical take on the scene, has Long rant and rave, restlessly moving about the stage as he tries to justify his actions to God, but bursting into despair when he realizes he cannot. Long is also quite vivid as the ghost of Hamlet the elder, the murdered king, whose ghostly mutterings as Hamlet realizes, especially those otherworldly demands to “Swear!” are suggestive of dark, Satanic origins.
Kate Forbes, who gave us a formidable Lady Macbeth in last season’s production of the Scottish play, offers a complicated Gertrude whose loyalty to her new husband is constantly countered by feelings for increasingly errant son, only gradually warming to her son’s position by the play’s end. In Forbes’ interpretation, one almost wonders if Gertrude has finally caught on to her husband’s skullduggery when she takes the poisoned cup to salute Hamlet’s victory in the climactic sword fight, shoving her discovery right into her husband’s face in what she knows will be a final act of defiance and an escape.
In a play filled with men, Brittany Vicars’ Ophelia almost gets lost in the shuffle in the early scenes. She comes across as such a fragile nonentity that Hamlet’s outburst to “get thee to a nunnery” is so unforgivably cruel that you almost think she’s going to dive into the creek then and there. Edward James Hyland’s Polonius is not the pompous old fool many productions make him out to be, but instead shows glimmers of the intelligence and loyalty that have made him a trusted advisor to the family. His list of admonitions to his son Laertes is played seriously straight, with his now tired polemics getting nary a smirk from the audience, delivered as they are with such utmost gravity by Hyland.
Anthony Roach’s Laertes is suitably fine and athletic, though he does have a tendency to over emote his rage and anger that makes it less than touching when he ultimately begs Hamlet for forgiveness toward the end of the evening. Floyd King gains laughs in two quite different roles: first as the Lead Player expressing a cynic’s truth about the impact of theater, and later as the Gravedigger, as he playfully responds literally to Hamlet’s questioning. Adam Montgomery is endearing as the roving actor htappily assigned to the women’s roles in his company and annoying as the foppish Osric (why is Osric always played so foppishly?), the keeper of the swords and duel-master.
Curtis Billings and Cliff Miller are fine as Hamlet’s insincere classmates, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, respectively, with Miller providing a smirking, adolescent contrast to Billings’ groundedness. James Seol portrays Horatio as a marvelously loyal friend to Hamlet (who wouldn’t want him by your side in a fix)? Seol moves so elegantly and speaks so clearly that at least this reviewer felt a strong desire to see him undertake his own Hamlet in the not-too-distant future.
But it is Tresnjak’s ability to find innovative ways to present his “Hamlet” to the audience that really makes this production well worth attending. For example, he turns on its head Hamlet’s confrontation scene with his mother that leads to his stabbing of Polonius “behind the arras.” Except here, the arras is located beneath a trap door immediately front and center to the audience, admittedly just a little bit awkward for logistics’ sake, but it has the impact of keeping the action as close to the audience’s laps as you can possibly get.
While certain productions of “Hamlet” can be lugubrious and leave one exhausted, Tresnjak’s take leaves one exhilarated and enthused. He takes such meticulous care in planning the specific stage movements and images that accompany virtually every line—and in some cases, word—in Shakespeare’s manuscript. That he has found such an energetic and articulate Hamlet in the person of Zach Appelman adds to our ability to connect with the play. Although this is only the second time in its long history that Hartford Stage has undertaken Hamlet (the previous time was Mark Lamos’s production with Richard Thomas nearly 20 years ago), Tresnjak has more than made up for lost time. Hartford Stage audiences love their Shakespeare, and they will take to this Hamlet without question.
“Hamlet” plays through November 16. For information and tickets, call the Hartford Stage box office at 860.527.5151 or visit their website at www.hartfordstage.org.