The Play's the Thing

CSF's innovative Hamlet keeps the classic vital.

By and large, when you have a good cast you have a good production of Hamlet, and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's cast is very strong. Tony Marble gives an energetic, intelligent rendition of the title role; Hollis McCarthy is an interesting Gertrude. Tony Molina produces a convincingly power-hungry Claudius, and Sarah Fallon, an excellent actress, plays Ophelia.

I couldn't help comparing this Hamlet with last year's production at the Denver Center, and in some ways I liked it better. I did miss Randy Moore's interestingly mean-spirited Polonius. Dennis R. Elkins makes Polonius a pompous, funny, but only mildly corrupt old fumbler. Still, this approach works, too. Tony Molina's Claudius is more conventionally kingly than John Hutton's version, with his deceptively mellow exterior and evil businessman's heart. McCarthy, on the other hand, gives us a rather less conventional Gertrude than the Denver Center's Gordana Rashovich. I liked this interpretation; it was nuanced and ambiguous. The fact that Hamletcan accommodate so many different approaches testifies to the play's capaciousness and is one of the reasons we're still watching it hundreds of years after it was written.

Director Jim Symons has set this production at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the stage is dominated by a broken clock. This is an evocative image that suggests the breakdown of both reason and technology. It also underlines Hamlet's famous exclamation: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right." Bruce A. Bergner's scenery is beautiful as well as mechanistic, filled with shadows and wistfully lit by Julie Mack.

Tony Marble and Hollis McCarthy in the Colorado 
Shakespeare Festival's Hamlet.
Tony Marble and Hollis McCarthy in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Hamlet.

Details

Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in conjunction with Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and Cymbeline
Through August 23
303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org
Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder

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For most of the evening, I was very involved in the production, finding subtleties I hadn't noticed before, or rediscovering old insights.

The plot of Hamlet is full of logical lapses. This may be part of the reason we find the central character so complex. Hamlet contradicts himself: He swings between compassion and cruelty, flim-flammery and honest pain. Why does he hesitate to kill Claudius? Some critics says it's because he's afraid the ghost is an agent of evil. But why continue to hesitate after the players' scene has verified the ghost's truthfulness? Is it really the fact that Claudius is at prayer right after the play within a play that prevents Hamlet from killing him on the spot, or is that just an excuse? For that matter, why does the ghost tell Hamlet to kill Claudius, but leave his mother to heaven in the first place? If heaven can take care of Gertrude, surely it can take care of Claudius. Does Hamlet love Ophelia? And what on earth can he mean when he stands by her gravesite screaming hysterically at her brother Laertes that he -- Hamlet -- loved Ophelia more than Laertes ever could? Later he apologizes by explaining that it was his insanity speaking, not himself. But he's already told us several times that he's only pretending to be mad.

The inconsistencies multiply. Hamlet stabs the hidden Polonius and cries hopefully, "Is it the King?" He knows damn well it's not the king, because he just passed Claudius praying in an alcove. Banished from Denmark, and on his way to England, Hamlet again tries to figure out why he's unable to carry out the ghost's command "sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do it." He may have will, strength and cause -- but means? He's traveling under guard. (Some scholars think this soliloquy doesn't belong in this part of the text.)

Tony Marble is always interesting and sometimes revelatory. It's terrific when he cries "Oh, vengeance!" in the best Shakespearean tradition, then rolls on the ground laughing at his own bombast. But occasionally, his line readings seem too willfully idiosyncratic -- a fault I've seen in many contemporary American Hamlets. Sure the prince is brilliant, surprising, show-offy, self-lacerating and self-absorbed, but there's no need to underline these facts by adding a plethora of additional tics and eccentricities. Periodically, I found myself focusing more on the actor than the character, evaluating Marble's performance moment by moment: Oh, nice inflection. Hmmm, I don't quite agree with that move. Perhaps I'm incapable of watching Hamlet as if I'd never seen it before, but it's also possible that Marble himself sometimes became more absorbed in his own acting than in the world of the play.

Many of Symons's directorial choices highlight Hamlet's narcissism in an interesting way. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are usually presented as buffoons, but Kevin Landis and Ian Andersen play them as perfectly decent young men, torn between their loyalty to the king (and the impossibility of disobeying his commands) and Hamlet's loathing for him. This makes Hamlet's order to have them murdered chilling. I've never before seen a production in which you cared a fig about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Landis and Andersen are very good in the roles. When Landis says to Hamlet: "My lord, you once did love me," you actually feel his bafflement and distress

Other interpretations were more problematic. I'm usually a fan of Sarah Fallon's, but I couldn't get a handle on her Ophelia. Who was this girl? For much of the play she seemed remarkably stable for someone about to go mad. Both Fallon and Marble were terrific in the nunnery scene, but her eventual insanity was unconvincing. Some Ophelias are poetic and wistful in the mad scenes; some behave like genuine lunatics, heads lolling, spittle flying. At the Denver Center, Morgan Hallet shook with frantic rage. But Fallon just delivers her words and songs clearly and nicely. Every now and then, she rushes up to another character like an over-eager child, but this is her only concession to insanity.

Gertrude is a murky role as written. We don't know whether she colluded with Claudius in the murder of Hamlet's father, or what she really feels about her son. When Hamlet accuses her of lechery and bad faith, she has several remorseful-sounding lines -- "Oh, Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain" -- but we're not sure if she means them. McCarthy's Gertrude doesn't. She's also completely unmoved later, when she describes Ophelia's death. (This is another of those anomalous Hamlet moments. If Gertrude sees Ophelia drowning, why doesn't she rescue the girl?) Most actresses make Gertrude sympathetic; it's to McCarthy's credit that she tried something darker and more difficult.

Her approach reminded me of Margaret Atwood's caustic little satire on the closet scene, "Gertrude Talks Back":

"I am not wringing my hands. I'm drying my nails . . .. The rank sweat of a what? My bed is certainly not enseamed, whatever that might be! A nasty sty, indeed! Not that it's any of your business, but I change those sheets twice a week, which is more than you do, judging from that student slum pigpen in Wittenberg . . .. And let me tell you, everyone sweats at a time like that, as you'd find out very soon if you ever gave it a try . . ..

"Oh! You think what? You think Claudius murdered your Dad? Well, no wonder you've been so rude to him at the dinner table.

"If I'd known that, I could have put you straight in no time flat.

"It wasn't Claudius, darling.

"It was me."

(From Good Bones and Simple Murders.)

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