Regional Reviews: Boston
The Actors' Shakespeare Project's Hamlet makes its stage in a setting both grand and unsettling: Boston's cathedral-like Church of the Covenant, where actors deliver their scenes among the pews and vaulted arches. The altar becomes a throne room, lit by little more than candlelight, and the organ and church bell sound ominously throughout. Director Doug Lockwood makes the most of the church's vast recesses and eerie emptiness; with actors weaving in and around us, the production feels very intimate.
But in this hallowed space, with the cast dressed in Jessica Pribble's beautifully ornate costumes, this approach to Hamlet tends to feel overly stately. Ross MacDonald and Marianna Bassham, for instance, are an able Claudius and GertrudeMacDonald crisp and cerebral, Bassham genuinely overcome as she learns of Claudius's treachery. But the royal family's plotlines don't have much urgency. Even their deaths are underplayed; Claudius barely makes an effort to stop Gertrude from sipping her poisoned chalice. And Ophelia's subdued mad scene doesn't suggest she's going to off herself.
Livelier are Hamlet and his friends, who amp up the ribald, bawdy side of Shakespeare's text. The production picks up speed when a traveling troupe acts out The Murder of Gonzago, in which Hamlet plots to implicate Claudius in the former king's death. Rory Boyd, Peter G. Andersen, and Alexander Platt embrace the actors' camp and raucousness; the three handily triple up on roles including Laertes and Horatio, sometimes switching characters in seconds. There's a welcome theatricality to their scenes. Hamlet likewise begins "To be or not to be" from the pews, breaking the wall between actor and audience to recite directly to us. It's as if Hamlet is play-acting, and he knows his words and shifting tempers are all a performance.
Omar Robinson's Hamlet is always "on." He plays up the comedy of the text, a manic smile seldom leaving his face, disrupting the lower key that Gertrude and Claudius act in. He even (unsubtly) sports a jester's cap at times. In his confrontations with Poornima Kirby's Ophelia, you could mistake Hamlet for The Taming of the Shrew's Petruchio, so devilishly does he dominate her with caddish cruelty. This Hamlet mocks the seriousness around him, including the church itself. There's an enjoyable moment of frisson when he physically mounts the pulpit to describe his, well, feelings for Ophelia. But beneath his wit-driven performance, we see little of Hamlet's grief. Madness is his main characteristic. If Robinson is purposefully burying Hamlet's oft-mentioned melancholy, the anguish he suppresses comes out too sporadically.
Within the wondrous Church of the Covenant (illuminated by Deb Sullivan's moody lighting), Lockwood takes advantage of his spiritual setting to direct this story. The play's ghosts are free to haunt the church, while the rowdier parts of the text profane it. Despite well-acted moments, though, this production never integrates its warring tones. With a muted king and queen and an overly comedic Hamlet, the emotional stakes don't feel high enough. "In this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story," Hamlet commands as he dies. If only we felt that pain, too.
Hamlet is presented by the Actors' Shakespeare Project through November 6, 2016, at the Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury St., Boston, MA. Tickets are $30-$50 and can be purchased at actorsshakespeareproject.org or by phone at 866-811-4111.