The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Hamlet takes a while to jell -- until after the intermission, in fact. There are good moments before that, but not enough of them; there are also moments bad enough to provoke giggles. Take the earliest scenes, in which the watchmen and Hamlet's friend Horatio encounter the ghost of old King Hamlet. Horatio, played as a truehearted stalwart in most productions, is here so young and inconsequential that he seems about to drown in his own bowler hat (this version of Hamlet is set just prior to World War I). The Ghost, his voice amplified so that he's constantly echoing himself, pronounces "bl-o-o-o-d" like the villain in a melodrama; for her part, Ophelia looks so much more peeved than distressed when her father forbids her to see Hamlet that we're surprised later to learn that she's actually obeyed. And Hamlet himself...well, Scott Ferrara is all over the map in the role.
Anyone directing or acting in Hamlet has hard decisions to make. No one can own this play; it's a thousand times bigger than any production of it. The best you can do is make intelligent decisions, give the characters breath and passion, and hope to illuminate some aspect of the text. Every new Hamlet must decide for himself why the character is unable to kill his murderous, usurping uncle Claudius; whether or not he really loves Ophelia; how he feels toward his mother; how mad Hamlet is; what on earth he means by challenging Ophelia's grieving brother Laertes at her very gravesite; and how sincere his later apologies are. ("So sorry, old man. Really didn't mean to kill your dad and drive your sister to suicide!") In short, the actor must make a thousand decisions that end up defining the experience of the play.
Most of us know Hamlet. It's impossible to regain the state of innocence in which we have no idea who Hamlet is or how he dies. Every time an actor utters the words "To be or not to be," he's accompanied by a silent chorus of predecessors, from Gielgud to Gibson. If his conviction falters for a second, you find yourself making comparisons: "How interesting. That's not how Olivier said it."
On the other hand, Hamlet remains new. We may get tired of certain bits, like courtier Osric's foppish mannerisms (Jonathan Clapham plays the role here with admirable restraint), but other scenes -- Hamlet talking to Yorick's skull, Ophelia's madness -- never lose their impact.
Director Anthony Powell is working with a tiny, intimate space, and he keeps his cast small. I'm not sure what the alternative would be, but as a result, Gertrude and Claudius's court is pretty bare-bones, with no more servants or courtiers around than needed to carry the action. You don't get much sense of a nation or state; they just seem like a couple running a household, and not a very powerful couple at that. When poor old Claudius proclaims, "Let the kettle to the trumpet sound," nothing happens at all. At the end, when a dying Hamlet addresses the onlookers: "You that look pale and tremble at this chance...," there's nobody around but Horatio and a couple of maids.
There are some very good directorial touches, too, as when Hamlet plays a verbal/drinking game with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or pauses to upbraid his mother for lust while dragging dead Polonius out by the feet.
Critics say the bloodletting at the end of Elizabethan tragedies signifies a cleansing of the body politic. Those who survive are intended to restore the state to health. In this Hamlet, however, the conquering Fortinbras is portrayed as an opportunistic powermonger. It's an interesting conception, but it may not add much, especially as this production hasn't stressed the play's social and political dimensions.
John Hutton plays Claudius like a businessman who masks his ruthlessness with an affable, laid-back manner. It works, and he's particularly good in the scene in which Claudius attempts to pray. Gordana Rashovich is an effective Gertrude, though I could have done with less unfocused laughter at the beginning. (Was it meant to mask her guilty unease? If so, it didn't work for me.) Randy Moore's Polonius is very strong, portrayed as domineering and unpleasant rather than fuddled, as the role is so often played. Aaron Serotsky as Laertes has a nice presence, but his shouting in the later scenes is too unvaried. Tony Church does a fine turn as the gravedigger, and Bill Christ oozes power as Fortinbras. Morgan Hallet's Ophelia is more defiant in the early scenes than most Ophelias. You wonder how she retained this spirit in the face of Moore's bullying Polonius. The nunnery scene is dispatched quickly and gives no sense at all of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. But later, Hallet turns in pitch-perfect renditions of the two mad scenes. She's shaking with anger as she delivers the first, and eschews sentimentality in both.
Scott Ferrara could be a terrific Hamlet. He manages for the most part to own the role, which is no mean task. He has intelligence and humor, as well as a quick tongue for a riposte. Some of his scenes are moving, simple and clean. He works well with Hamlet's erstwhile friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Adam Gordon and Jason Henning), and his "Alas, poor Yorick" is fine. Sometimes you spot greatness. But Ferrara gets in his own way. He's often mannered; he hits words off-kilter, throws in quirky pauses, responds to other characters' comments too fast to have actually heard them, goes in for self-consciously odd stops and quickenings. I associate this kind of acting with Juilliard, though there's no indication Ferrara went there. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it's hugely distracting.
This is an honorable production. With more careful thought, it could have been an inspiring one.
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