The tech crew at the Denver Center Theatre Company includes some of the best people in the country, and their budget is clearly generous, but their work can only carry a production so far. The set for Hamlet is a subtle wonder of stone and steel, offering frequent glimpses of an ever-changing sky: dark, heavy clouds, bars of rust-rose. And it's the most expressive thing about this show.
Director Kent Thompson is working from one of the world's most complex and fascinating scripts, one that can be mined for all kinds of meaning and remains puzzling enough to have occupied some of the best critical and literary minds for centuries. As the program points out, no one can solve definitively all the riddles the play raises, primary among them why Hamlet doesn't kill King Claudius the minute the Ghost of his father tells him of Claudius's guilt. Or — since you could never be sure in Elizabethan times whether a spirit had been sent by heaven or hell — after he's satisfactorily proved the Ghost's accusation with a cunning play-within-a-play called The Mousetrap. Does Hamlet love Ophelia? Textual analysis will give you both a yes and a no. Is he really mad or faking it, or both, at various times? Ditto. There have been thoughtful Hamlets, robust Hamlets, conflicted Hamlets, spectral and overweight Hamlets, Hamlets too scholarly to take on the ugly work of murder or too psychologically tainted by an Oedipal desire to bed Queen Gertrude. The play also has sequence and plot problems, too. All these contradictions only underline the maddening brilliance and evocativeness of this great work.
But if you're going to direct Hamlet, you need to come up with a specific interpretation. This production is set just before World War One — I'm not sure why, or, for that matter, in what country; none of the images I can summon up of that disastrous and confusing adventure seem to apply to the plot.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 23. Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
You also need an acting style capable of communicating complexity and passion. Aubrey Deeker's Hamlet is impossible to empathize with, all tics and mannerisms. Every actor confronted with this role must find a way to make the great monologues his own and speak the well-known words as if they'd just that moment entered his head, but Deeker's approach is to emphasize unremarkable phrases, toss away important ones and sometimes — and for no apparent reason — to run long sequences of words together, as at the end of the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy: "...andlosethenameofactionSoftyounowthefairOphelia..."
Kathleen McCall's performance as Gertrude, sometimes sly and sometimes sympathetic, in no way clarifies the central question about the character, the one Shakespeare never answers but the actor should: Was she complicit in the murder of her first husband? Does she love the second or just enjoy being queen? Why does McCall recite the facts about Ophelia's death so very slowly and deliberately and ultimately devolve into pure melodrama? This strange quirk affects the performances in general, as actors shift from flatly unemotional to shrieky and over the top. Ophelia, played by Amelia Pedlow, suffers affectations similar to Hamlet's, though her mad scenes are touching. As spoken by Peter Simon Hilton, the beginning of Claudius's pivotal prayer scene is quietly moving: "O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;/It hath the primal eldest curse upon't ...," but within minutes, Hilton is strolling the stage and sharing his musings about guilt and repentance with us, the audience, like a lecturer in front of a classroom.
There are bright spots among the performances. Sam Gregory's timing and specificity, impeccable as always, provide a nice counterpoint to Polonius's woolly speechifying, making the man funny but not a caricature. Philip Pleasants has terrific fun playing the Gravedigger — and it's terrific fun watching him.
I've been wondering for some time about the DCTC's casting, and also its choice of repertoire. The laudable emphasis on developing new work has yielded interesting evenings — notably Black Odyssey and The Most Deserving this year — but recent seasons have generally been plodding and predictable. As for Shakespeare, Thompson set an emphatic marker with a brilliant Measure for Measure soon after his 2004 arrival as artistic director, but since then the offerings have varied hugely in quality, from a beautiful Midsummer Night's Dream to an Othello in which the lead could barely speak the verse. There's something badly wrong when the best part of a production of Hamlet is a tormented sky.