Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Michael Braugher makes a spectacular Guthrie debut as Hamlet, after recently making his Broadway debut as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird when it reopened after the pandemic shutdown. Braugher has acting in his genes–parents, Andre Braugher and Ami Brabson are both noted actors–and he is a Juilliard graduate. Those who see this performance will likely have the satisfaction of knowing they saw him early on as his career flourishes, as it surely will.
From the moment Hamlet utters his first disdainful line in the second scene of Act I, he commands the narrative, our attention held captive by the urgency with which Braugher inhabits the young prince. Even during scenes in which he does not appear, we feel his presence steering the course of the play. He speaks not in a sulky or brooding voice, but with the precise aim of a sniper. Great, well-known speeches–"What a piece of work is man," "To be or not to be"–and more-present arguments Hamlet must process internally, but his thoughts are nimble and canny, and he runs through the arguments as directly as Sherlock Holmes unravels a clue. This is not to say he is heartless, for we are privy to the torment he feels for what has befallen him and the sorrow for the price of the collateral damage done to those dear to him.
What has befallen Hamlet is the death of his father, King of Denmark, and the hasty remarriage of his mother Gertrude–not only hasty, but to his uncle Claudius, the fallen king's brother, who has now assumed the throne. It is two months since his father's death and all but Hamlet seem to have accepted the turn of events. Hamlet's sixth sense that things are amiss is confirmed when he is visited by his father's ghost. The king's death was not from a snake bite, as reported, but was "murder most foul." The ghost commands his son to avenge his death, departing with the admonition "Remember me." Hamlet does so, at steep cost to Ophelia (the girl he loves and would likely have married), to his friends, to his mother, and to his own mortal life. This Hamlet does not exactly stall, but he works methodically–sorting out chaotic feelings, choosing the right time, and gathering the evidence to support his vengeance–before bringing the matter to a tragic and bloody end.
Braugher's superb performance is a jewel set among an array of gems. John Catron brings a steely arrogance to Claudius, a monstrous man who believes that if he behaves as if above reproach, he will be untouched by his past, giving the play a relevant link to certain current newsmakers. Regina Marie Williams is elegantly regal as Gertrude, vexed by her son's melancholy but unwilling to address the root of it until too late. As Ophelia, Anya Whelan-Smith is charming as a young woman, barely past being a girl. She deflects worldly advice from her father and older brother, exhibiting the spunk that make her seem a good match for Hamlet in his happier days. Then, as Hamlet turns on her, she shrinks into a wilted flower. Whelan-Smith gives a deeply moving performance. Ray Dooley instills great humor into pompous, overly wordy Polonius, Ophelia's father and the king's prime minister. No one could mistake Hamletfor a comedy, but Dooley draws out the humor embedded in the role that provides relief from the dramatic storm. Like Braugher, both Whelan-Smith and Dooley are making welcome Minnesota theater debuts.
Grayson DeJesus makes a terrific impression as Laertes, Ophelia's brother, whose open emotions, confidence, and readiness to act stand in contrast to Hamlet's more studied approach. William Sturdivant and Dustin Bronson take on different roles, but most notably Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two friends from Hamlet's youth whom the King summons to draw the prince out of his gloom–and learn if there is anything behind those moods that might prove hazardous to the new king. Sturdivant and Bronson make great sport of portraying this pair whose relevance to Hamlet's life has clearly passed its sell-by date. Daniel Petzold is deeply affecting as Hamlet's devoted best friend Horatio, while James Rodriguez and Max Wojtanowicz ably portray a variety of guards, emissaries and servants.
Finally, David Whalen provides a stirring image as the Ghost and–with Ray Dooley–a swarthy pair of gravediggers, remarking on the behaviors of the upper class whose lives float above their station until the time comes for them to be buried under the gravediggers' feet. It is from this scene that Hamlet, finding the skull of the man who was court jester in the prince's childhood, launches into the "Alas, poor Yorick!" speech, another occasion for Braugher to convey Hamlet's questioning of the veil that separates this life from whatever form of life may follow.
Played out on a brutalist set designed by Jan Chambers, this is stolid Elsinore Castle, with a high perch on one corner and a balcony accessed by a muscular spiraled staircase, creating a vision of power that will remain standing when this knot of tormented, misguided, and evil-doing denizens blot themselves out of existence and others move in to fill the vacuum. Haj moves the players in and out through the several exits and entrances, seamlessly from one scene to the next, the audience's attention in constant thrall. Robert Wierzel's lighting creates distinct spaces upon the large expanse of the thrust stage, then changes to reflect the shifting moods and dangers visited upon the characters.
Jack Herrick composed and performs unobtrusively on stage, music that underscores the rise and fall of the narrative, sharpening the tone of the drama without ever distracting from it. The play within the play–a device Hamlet employs to solidify the evidence he needs before avenging his father's murder–is presented as shadows projected upon the stage wall, a most effective treatment with projections designed by Francesca Talenti. Costume designer Trevor Bowen has dressed the players in modern attire, giving enough distinction to the royalty to outshine all others, notably the various gowns, a stylish slacks ensemble, and luxurious night gown worn by the queen, and the ostentatious coats and robes draped around the newly coronated king.
This is a Hamlet bent on making the machinations of the plot and the motivations of the characters understood. Haj seems to have a clear sense of what he wants his audiences to see and hear, to know and understand, and he succeeds in provoking complex thinking and weighty feelings. Haj, and the cast and crew he has assembled, deliver a world class production of a play that holds its place, over four hundred years after its arrival, at the pinnacle of great theater.
Hamlet runs through May 21, 2023, at the Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $31 - $79. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3 - $6 off per ticket. Public Rush line for unsold seats 15-30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets: $20 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday evenings; $25 on weekend matinees, Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Joseph Haj; Scenic Design: Jan Chambers; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Sound Design: Darron L. West; Projection Design: Francesca Talenti; Composer/Musician: Jack Herrick; Fight Director: Casey Kaleba; Vocal Coach: Rebecca Clark Carey; Intimacy: Alli St. John; Music Consultant: Denise Prosek; Resident Dramaturg; Carla Steen; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Plath; Assistant Director: Willie E. Jones III.; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.
Cast: Michael Braugher (Hamlet), Dustin Bronson (Guildenstern/Fortinbras/Barnardo), John Catron (Claudius/Lucianus), Grayson DeJesus (Laertes), Ray Dooley (Polonius/Gravedigger), Daniel Petzold (Horatio), James Rodriguez (Voltemand/Francisco/Priest/Prologue), William Sturdivant (Rosencrantz/Marcellus), David Whalen (Ghost/Gravedigger/Player King), Anya Whelan-Smith (Ophelia), Regina Marie Williams (Gertrude/Player Queen), Max Wojtanowicz (Osric).