Christopher Selbie is a lot older than any Hamlet I've ever seen, and he's more manic-depressive than melancholic. But if his performance is quirky, it's also remarkable--and it turns the Compass Theatre Company's production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, though uneven and clunky in places, into an oddball victory.
Hamlet has been done so often and so well that simply coming up with a new interpretation is an accomplishment in itself. Many of the greatest actors of stage and film have crowned their careers with the brooding prince, and the play contains some of the greatest lines in all of English literature. So if you've seen it ten times, what new depths can it hold for you?
Selbie and director Penny Walrath answer that question with a rousing, biting production that misses the mark here and there (the ending is particularly disappointing) but nevertheless uncovers nuances of feeling that resonate with truth and life. The choices Selbie and Walrath make are often odd (interjecting the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy into the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene, for instance) but always intensely interesting.
You know the story: Young Hamlet broods over the recent death of his father, the king, and the untimely marriage of his mother to his father's brother, Claudius, who has inherited the throne. Hamlet soon learns from his father's ghost that it was Claudius who killed him. Now Hamlet has to avenge his father, and he takes the remainder of the play to do it. In the end, the stage is littered with bodies as Hamlet gives up the ghost at last.
Walrath and Selbie do great things with madness. Selbie's prince eschews the graceful word-fencing of many another Hamlet, instead delivering his lines in a conversational tone while moving like a whirlwind the whole time. This Hamlet is much more psychologically damaged than he is manipulative--and more gutsy than he is philosophical--but this is emphatically not a Freudian interpretation of the role (no lusting after mama).
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Hamlet's fault normally lies in his indecisiveness, but Selbie makes him impulsive rather than irresolute. When the opportunity to kill the king presents itself as Claudius kneels in prayer, Hamlet refrains, gripped by a burning passion to send Claudius to hell. He'll wait till he can catch Claudius drunk or committing incest. It's a great scene, especially since Peter Goldfarb plays Claudius with an evil will that itself seems insane. When Claudius rises from prayer, completely aware of his hypocrisy, Goldfarb has him cackle with glee--a brilliant choice that's felt throughout the rest of the evening.
Joey Wishnia was born to play Claudius's counselor, Polonius, and the other two best performances belong to Mia Todd as Ophelia and Erik Tieze as Laertes. Todd's delicate reading of Ophelia is fragile and superb. Tieze is always wonderful to watch--he draws the viewer's eye and then holds it with his presence--and he gives Laertes more genuine familial feeling than I have seen in the role before. It doesn't hurt that Todd and Tieze look enough alike to be brother and sister.
The production has its flaws--some of the minor roles are less interesting than they should be, the costumes don't work and the last fight scene is anti-climactic. But none of that matters too much. What does matter is that you've been made to feel fully the connection between evil intentions and human tragedy. The insights in Hamlet are still true when actors like these can find themselves in the characters.