Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Which is not to say this newest Hamlet, Jim Poulos, is unsubtle, or overly dramatiche knows when to go deep inside, and when to come out fighting as well, though it's more often a war of nerves. But it's also a pleasure to hear Shakespeare's great introspective monologs flow beautifully from his mouth in quieter moments. Still fitted with a college boy's bawdy sense of humor, and awestruck mind, this Hamlet is (of course) also replete with a young man's idealism. Every new turning point in the plot presents him with a new moral landscape. He also gets in a remarkably full repertoire of sexual jokes, more or less within the bounds of the script.
To discuss what else is different in this newest Hamlet, and how it recreates the meaning of the play and our perceptions of the great tragedy, let's start by looking at Larry Paulsen as Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes. This is not the comically oafish character Hamlet describes, but rather a dignified courtier, sincerely concerned about his daughter and son, and with the fulfillment of the will of the new king. (For those late to Western Civilization, Hamlet's father, King of Denmark, dies suddenly and his uncle Claudius swoops in and marries the widowed queen, Hamlet's mother Gertrude, causing a lot of raised eyebrows, and denying Hamlet the throne.) It is sometimes called the greatest play in the English language, and it may well be. Every time I see a great new version, I'm sure of it. And I'm sure of it all over again now.
But, as with all new productions, employing a new director and new cast members, the balance is changed, in all things. In this new production, on the Browning Mainstage of the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, Hamlet is also the story of missing fathers, or rather, of the power of the father by subtractionit always was for Hamlet, whose own dad (in ghost form, played by Jeffrey Cummings) here seems coolly radiant and tragically magnificent, stalking spectrally about the castle, very obviously dead too soon for the young prince, in many ways.
And Polonius' death leaves a big hole in his own family's life. Following the accidental murder of this nobler Polonius, the sudden destruction of his family seems even more devastating. It's something of a plague, here, absent fathers: even before the play, Hamlet's father has killed the father of warring young Prince Fortinbras of Norway. And scenic designer Michael Ganio's giant pillar, up-center on stage, seems a metaphor for any good father, lightly holding up great girders, athwart, even higher overhead.
The ending is also strangely, unexpectedly horrifyingit is palpably the fall of a great house of Europe, after allbut whether it's the reverse-staging (from normal), with the king and queen downstage, facing up; or the inexorable hand of fate swift at work; or perhaps the sudden, noble camaraderie of Hamlet and Laertes (splendid Carl Howell) late in their exciting duel, the shape of things is altered, and the tone is likewise, humanly, more terrible.
Which brings us to Michael James Reed as the latest Claudius. There's something in his performance (and in Mr. Barnes' direction) that's invisibly clever and menacing and suspicious, which gleefully unbundles itself in our heads as his performance proceeds. (Although, in 2013's Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Mr. Reed was even more coarsely menacing.) Here, in self-consciously grand gold brocade, like a monarch who must remind everyone he is a legitimate ruler, Mr. Reed is also the great clockwork of conspiracyand Hamlet the impetuous, feisty little mouse that runs up inside to wreak havoc. Intermission comes at the precise moment when an outraged Claudius stops the play-within-the-play, exposing his guilt.
There's a whole lot of invention in this particular prince, making him deeply lyrical, but also a reckless, threatening sprig of a man-child. And the investment of character and circumstance all across the stage (in just under three hours) is highly impressive. For Mr. Poulos, in the title role, it is the kind of huge canvas that an actor dreams of, all his younger days. With the help of director Barnes, he takes full advantage of the opportunity, sometimes as a sort of Jackson Pollock, painting the stage with chaos. But just as often, in the quieter moments, he's a Vermeer, a master of psychological clarity and quiet perspective.
We don't ask, so much, "Is he mad?," because of course others see the towering ghost of his noble father, too. But we may ask, "Is he a good young man, in a reckless time of life, cursed with an awful circumstance? Or is he always going to be this way: a bad boy, blessed with a poetic heart?"
Robynn Rodriguez is warm and wise as Gertrude, which only makes everything much worse, of course, in the end. And Kim Wong's descent into wretched madness, as Ophelia, adds a whole new dimension of tragedy to the show. Christopher Gerson seems pretty grown-up to be young Hamlet's pal Horatio, but of course is excellent in that relationship, and filled with kindly grace. And Jonathan Gillard Daly makes for a great Gravedigger, trading quips with Hamlet before an awful spectacle at a grave-side funeral.
If you've ever been (across suburbia's golden corridor) to the New Jewish Theatre, during one of their more traditional "family" plays, you may have heard the older members of the audience quietly reciting familiar prayers at ceremonial dinners in onstage holiday scenes. That same "call and response" is very much in evidence here, as the Rep's secular audience quietly recites well-known phrases and lines that are everywhere in Hamlet. Through this communion, we are drawn closer together, in the dark. It is a book of common prayer, urging us to a higher structure of mind. And we carry this heritage out of the theater, to be shared anew in the world.
Through November 5, 2017, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
The Players (in order of appearance)