Hamlet really is a narcissistic ass. I'm not talking about his famous, almost play-long dithering about whether or not he should kill the uncle who murdered his father and married his mother — and if so, when and how, and what it says about his character that he's unable to do it, and on and on and on. I'm talking about the fact that he destroys Ophelia (yeah, yeah, he loves her as well — he's just tormented. I get it. But she ends up every bit as destroyed as if he hadn't loved her); kills her father and then makes ugly jokes about the body; reveals to his mother a hysterical revulsion toward sex that would do a Republican politician proud; sends two university chums to their deaths on very ambiguous evidence that they've betrayed him; interrupts Ophelia's burial to rant about how much more he loved her than did her brother, Laertes; and expresses utter bewilderment at Laertes's subsequent anger. This essential nastiness is only somewhat excused by the fact that he's in pain, but it is obscured, in most productions, by Hamlet's wit, energy and brilliance, as well as his extraordinarily expressive and inventive language.
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I think the reason I particularly noted Hamlet's character flaws in this Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet is that Stephen Weitz gives the prince a stronger and more forceful persona than I'm used to. His Hamlet is less melancholy and poetic and far more a man of action — frequently violent action. As a result, you tend to think of him as also more responsible for the havoc he creates. Weitz is a striking figure, really good with the funny, ironic dialogue, and able to deliver most of the famous monologues and speeches with a power and clarity that make them live — I particularly noticed "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I?," and when he spoke to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about "this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire," I actually found myself gazing upward at the night sky and moving clouds above the open-air theater.
There are other performances that make this old chestnut somewhat new. Sam Sandoe's Polonius seems an elegant English gentleman rather than a befuddled old goat, and the melodious precision with which he delivers his bromides makes them sound oddly incisive, and often very funny. Jamie Ann Romero is a charming and vital Ophelia, though I was looking for something a little deeper in the mad scenes, particularly the first one. Horatio is usually one of those strong, honest, stoic Englishmen, but — aided by a long ponytail and wearing what looks like a bathrobe — Timothy Orr plays him as a rather timid slacker. You can imagine him and Hamlet blowing dope together in their dorm, though maybe this iron Hamlet goes for something stronger.
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 9, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
But there are also a number of miscastings and missteps in Philip C. Sneed's production. Claudius should be a formidable opponent, but Dennis Elkins is so light on his feet and almost childish in the role that you wonder why Hamlet couldn't just huff and puff and blow his kingdom away. Sneed has chosen to make Rosencrantz a woman (Karyn Casl); the production implies that Hamlet once had an affair with her, and she's not over it. This adds a piece of context to Hamlet's love for Ophelia: Here's one of these guys who's happy to dally with an emancipated fellow student but can only really love a shy, well-born lass at court. (Unlike England's Prince Charles, who, wedded to a real fairy-tale princess, longed for horsey, worldly-wise Camilla. I must say, I liked him for it.) The unexpected Hamlet-Rosencrantz flirtation does leave poor Guildenstern somewhat out in the cold, which might be why Matt Mueller, one of the festival's most reliably interesting actors, appears unusually subdued in the role. It doesn't help that his costume consists of a velvet doublet over blue jeans — one of a few sartorial flubs in the production. Hamlet has a distracting skull on his black T-shirt. And the Ghost is clad in such a wide and chunky suit of armor, with so many pieces of stuff dangling from it, that he looks like a walking wall. According to the program notes, Sneed decided to set the action in "a nonspecific time and place in order to cross social and cultural boundaries" — a concept that works quite nicely for the set — and to have the costumes illustrate character traits rather than a specific time period, which turns out to be more confusing than enlightening.
Despite Weitz's Hamlet, the production gets progressively less interesting and specific as it rises toward its climax. By the time the Queen was staggering around in her death throes and Hamlet and Laertes were using their dying breaths to forgive each other, I'd pretty much tuned out.