Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Karen's review of The Music Man and Christine's review of Guys and Dolls

Eddie Izzard
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
In an unexpected addition to its season, Chicago Shakespeare Theater in partnership with Westbeth Entertainment, Mick Perrin Worldwide, and John Gore, has brought Eddie Izzard to the stage in a phenomenal solo performance of Hamlet, adapted by Mark Izzard (in a second collaboration between the two siblings) and directed by Selina Cadell. In their program note, CST's Executive Director Kimberly Motes and Artistic Director Edward Hall tell of seeing the show in New York little more than a month ago and determining, on the spot, to bring it to Chicago. Given the demands of the show, making this happen in such a time frame borders on miraculous.

The production design is characterized by the kind of simplicity that speaks of experts at the top of their respective games collaborating and investing the labor necessary to render the moving parts invisible. Tom Piper's set is an unfinished shadow box set on an angle. One step, about a foot high, runs three quarters of the length of the upstage wall, and there are tall, narrow windows set in the walls at stage left and right.

The set itself is white with faint peach stippling, suggesting both veins of color running through marble and surfaces that are meant to be pristine but have begun to show the signs of having been scrubbed down after one too many blood baths. The stage left portion of the frame is "missing," suggesting a Denmark that is slipping into the void in both this direction and via the matte black steps that lead out toward the audience.

Tyler Elich's lighting design and Eliza Thompson's music composition are executed in perfect sync to effect the early rapid-fire scene changes that establish the eerie encounters with the ghost, as well as Hamlet's unsteady mental state, even before the supernatural intervenes. Both lighting and music are critical to pacing that feels effortless, even though it certainly is not.

Mark Izzard's adaptation is decidedly at play in this as well. There's no wholesale elimination of entire plot lines or characters as there so often is to save actors and audiences alike from Elizabethan run times. Rather, there is clear thought behind and interest in certain threads, and scenes and soliloquies are strategically shaped to serve those through active choices rather than blunt omissions or labored dwelling on one or two ideas. Notably, this version retains Fortinbras and dwells productively on the politics of Hamlet's situation, without at all downplaying the more intimate familial dramas. And in this emphasis, there is no sacrifice of interest in Gertrude or Ophelia, who are both more active agents than in most productions.

The show, of course, is Eddie's, and she is magnificent from the first moment she steps on to the stage. Certainly the movement direction by Didi Hopkins and fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth are key components of why the show works so brilliantly, but it all comes down to the words.

Any solo show, let alone one that pares down own of the tragedies to a single performer, can all too easily turn into a mere exhibition of skill; it might be enjoyable, even breathtaking, but with comparatively little substance beneath. That is far from the case here.

Certainly, Eddie's mastery of voice, posture, eye contact, and character are on full display and she has every right in the world to ask the audience to revel in her virtuosity, but this is nothing so cold or empty as that. There is feeling in every character, and each stays with the audience. Her Polonius, for example, apparently does not have use of his right arm and limps badly on the same leg. But this is no simple visual to ease transitions in dialogue-heavy scenes–it calls to mind his age, but also the possibility of his service to country.

Her Gertrude is, yes, concerned for her son and suffused with guilt, but she is also impatient with Hamlet's sidelong attacks, stunned at the brutality of his murder of Polonius, and wearily resigned, though filled with grief when Ophelia meets her end. It will certainly come as no surprise to anyone who has long loved Eddie's comedy that the gravedigger scene is riotous and perfect; but the confrontation between Hamlet and Laertes that follows is just as arresting.

When Eddie took her curtain call, she declared the show the opportunity of a lifetime. It rang true not only for her, but for every audience member on their feet.

Hamlet runs through May 4, 2024, at Chicago Shakespeare, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 312-595-5600.