Also see Susan's reviews of Dead Man's Cell Phone
William Shakespeare's Hamlet is a man of many contradictory impulses. He is simultaneously intellectually detached and maddened by emotion; a man who enjoys playing psychological games but who isn't necessarily in control of them; overpowered by grief while also furious at those he sees as responsible for the situation, fairly or not. In his current modern-dress portrayal of the role at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company, Jeffrey Carlson finds a unique focus: the frenzies of extreme youth.
Yes, the prince of Denmark is described as a college student when his father dies and his father's brother (Robert Cuccioli) marries the widow (Janet Zarish) and takes over the throne, but he is seldom played with the kind of youthful anger and emotional outbursts orchestrated for Carlson by director Michael Kahn. This is a Hamlet who disrupts his mother's wedding reception by loudly dropping his traveling bag from a balcony; who greets Horatio (Pedro Pascal) by leaping into his arms; and who routinely scrambles over furniture.
Is this emphasis on the wildness of youth a valid characterization of Hamlet? Yes, most certainly. Also, Hamlet's youth means that Ophelia (Michelle Beck) must be even younger, an innocent schoolgirl whose madness becomes not only understandable but ultimately unavoidable, and Rosencrantz (David L. Townsend) and Guildenstern (J. Clint Allen) come across as an amiable couple of slackers. (Kahn gives them a bit of business that refers obliquely to Tom Stoppard's take on these two, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, still onstage across town at the Studio Theatre.)
All the major performers give their roles the gravity and thought they deserve. Cuccioli plays Claudius as a slick politician, media-savvy and suitably attentive to his queen. Zarish does a good job balancing Gertrude's genuine love for Claudius against her worry and justified irritation at her son's outbursts. Robert Jason Jackson is a soft-spoken Polonius, downplaying the character's long-windedness, and he joins Beck and Kenajuan Bentley (a thoughtful Laertes) in creating a family portrait that, by its genuine bonds of affection, contrasts effectively with that of Hamlet. Ted van Griethuysen gets three meaty cameos, as the ghost of the former king, Hamlet's father; the witty gravedigger; and the murderer in the play-within-the-play.
Kahn has some fun with the contemporary setting, suggesting that Hamlet's possible suicide may come from prescription drugs rather than a dagger, and interpolating cell phones and pocket-size tape recorders in familiar scenes. One inspired addition is giving Gertrude a wedding bouquet, which reappears in surprising form later on.
Walt Spangler's abstract, modernistic scenic design consists mostly of moving, transparent walls that, by turns, reveal the setting and hide things from view behind the reflections caused by Charlie Morrison's lighting design. Walt Spangler's costumes tend toward well-tailored suits and dresses for the royals and a modified school uniform for Ophelia, but the traveling players wear sumptuous Asian-inspired robes for their performance.
Shakespeare Theatre Company