Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Is He Dead?, Guys and Dolls, and Fiddler on the Roof

William Wilson
Photo by Mark Gluckman
I consider William Shakespeare's Hamlet to be his greatest play and one of the best plays ever written. Full of nuanced, intricate and rich characters and a plot that turns on a dime with an explosive finale, it is also a play that, beyond a talented cast, doesn't really require any fancy production elements or updated settings in order to make Shakespeare's stellar dialogue and stunning language shine. Southwest Shakespeare Company's production has a talented cast led by William Wilson, who is exceptional as Hamlet, but there are a few small shortcomings in the production concept.

Director David Barker has abridged the play to an energetic and fairly fast-paced running time of two hours, plus intermission. He omits numerous secondary characters and subplots yet these cuts never detract from the main plot. Prince Hamlet's father the King is dead. When a ghostly image that resembles the King informs Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius, who has married the King's widow Gertrude and inherited the throne, it sets in motion a chain of events with Hamlet seeking vengeance for his father's murder.

The part of Hamlet is a wide ranging role with rich introspective dialogue as well as a physical transformation of sorts—from the grieving and mourning prince when we first meet him to the energetic, rebellious, humorous, and blood thirsty man with a vengeance that he becomes. William Wilson navigates his way through Shakespeare's witty wordplay as he delivers some of the most famous lines in the theatre with a stunning ease, a natural command of the language, and a firm control of this multidimensional man, achieving a stunning portrayal of this beloved character.

The supporting cast are all very good. Melody Knudson makes a radiant Ophelia, whose descent into madness after her father is killed and she has also suffered rejection from Hamlet is full of a raw intensity. As Gertrude and Claudius, Amie Bjorklund and Keath David Hall are, respectively, poignant and deeply calculating, while Andy Cahoon as Laertes, Ophelia's brother, registers a wide range of appropriate emotions. Cahoon and Wilson also negotiate a highly realistic swordfight that is well staged by director Barker and fight captain Cisco Saavedra. Clay Sanderson plays several very different parts with ease, especially a deeply moving portrayal of the ghost of Hamlet's father.

Barker sets the piece in the ageless "here and now" time period. The combination of Tiana Torrilhon's simple, bleak and dark yet highly effective set design and the exquisite, shadow-drenched lighting by Daniel Davisson works quite well to bring a timelessness to the piece. However, Barker's decision to include a rope motif throughout is less effective. In the program director's notes he comments on how ropes will be used "metaphorically to ensnare, tether, hold back and tie down characters." This works well to show the ghost of Hamlet's father being held back, as if he's desperately trying against unseen forces to come from the beyond to inform Hamlet. However, in other instances, it mostly gets in the way of and occasionally distracts from the beauty of Shakespeare's prose, such as when Ophelia is tied down in the same way as the Ghost, or having all of the costumes have strange rope designs on them, which looks more like out of place macramé clothing from the 1970s. Barker also adds in bits of comedy, like having Hamlet exit one scene walking like Charlie Chaplin, and having the Gravedigger sing a verse of "Get Happy," that add humor when it isn't needed. With a play as perfect as Hamlet you don't need uneven and unnecessary motifs and out of place comic bits—you can let the piece stand perfectly on its own.

Even with these few out of place directorial decisions, with William Wilson's rich and affecting portrayal and a game cast who throw themselves into their roles, Southwest Shakespeare Company's Hamlet is a rewarding production of Shakespeare's epic tragedy.

Hamlet runs in repertory with Much Ado about Nothing through January 28th, 2017, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 480-644-6500/

Director: David Barker
Production Stage Manager: Jenissa Yauney
Scenic Designer: Tiana Torrilhon
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Costume Designer: Maci Cae Hosler
Sound Designer: Peter Bish
Hair and Makeup Designer: Sasha Wordlaw
Fight Captain: Cisco Saavedra

Rosencrantz: Natalie Andrews
Gertrude: Amie Bjorklund
Laertes: Andy Cahoon
Claudius: Keath David Hall
Horatio: Phillip Herrington
Polonius: Gary Keast
Ophelia: Melody Knudson
Guildenstern: Jordan Letson
Supernumerary #2: Megan Lindsay
Supernumerary 1: Suze St. John
Ghost / Player King / Gravedigger /Lord: Clay Sanderson
Hamlet: William Wilson