This is not your mother’s or your grandmother’s Hamlet. That was evident from the very start of the preview performance offered Thursday night at Nadine Baum Studios.
Hamlet, the final production in TheatreSquared’s eighth season, is among the tragedies William Shakespeare wrote in the later part of his creative life. Among the most famous of his plays, and having lasted more than 400 years now, this tale of family angst, revenge and murder certainly stands the test of time. It also has some of the most wonderful, well-known lines of Shakespeare’s verse.
Sean Patrick Reilly, an actor from the last show, Good People, takes on the director’s role for this one. He greeted the audience just before the performance and read a few lines from the prologue to Henry V, inviting the crowd: “Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.”
This presentation of the tale is modern in several ways. There are no period costumes — rather, much of the cast wears suit pieces in varied shades of gray and black. The delivery of lines is often done with a modern tone, rather than what might be expected from such an old tale.
As goes this tale, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sees the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, who asks the son to revenge his death. Claudius, the king’s brother, had him killed and then, in very quick succession, married Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, and assumed the throne. The speed with which these events have occurred greatly troubles Hamlet. He takes some time to plot and scheme revenge for his father. And, Hamlet predicts early on, that all that lives must die.
Grant Goodman, making his debut with TheatreSquared, is excellent in his unique portrayal of Hamlet. Showing he’s crazed, he walks across the stage with his suit jacket on backwards — evocative of a self-imposed straightjacket. He well plays the range of emotions — from rage to despair to madness (possibly feigned, possibly not). His “To be or not to be” soliloquy was quite near perfect, an expression of the complex character he’s created.
Amy Herzberg, who was director of the last show, Good People, plays the role of Queen Gertrude. She is also associate artistic director and a co-founder for TheatreSquared. It is a delight to see Herzberg on stage. She carefully navigates the relationship with her new husband and her son. Hamlet thinks the queen didn’t mourn enough — in length or volume — and he tells her so.
In his grief, Hamlet wrestles with the nature of life and the purpose of man. As he has lost his mirth, a traveling acting troupe comes in to provide entertainment and distraction. But Hamlet seizes this as an opportunity to test his uncle’s guilt. He requests they put on a play portraying a murder similar to what he imagines happened to his father, so he can see his uncle’s reaction. “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
The set for the show is stark yet efficient, serving the needs of a variety of scenes and settings. An wide, open space is flanked by six tall, square columns bearing lighting sconces. Tall, sheer curtains at the center of the stage easily close and part to create specific spaces for different scenes.
Courtneay Sanders makes her TheatreSquared debut as Ophelia, who is lovestruck for Hamlet. She is carefree and playful with her brother, Laertes, who teases her as brothers do. As Laertes gives her advice on how to conduct herself with Hamlet, eventually, he says, “To thine own self be true,” then playfully tweaks her nose as he leaves.
John T. Smith wonderfully plays Polonius, Ophelia’s father. He talks in riddles, delivering them with hilarious physical mannerisms. Declaring “brevity is the soul of wit,” he proceeds to tell the queen that her son is indeed mad — but he believes it is because of Hamlet’s love for his daughter.
When Hamlet argues with his mother over her rush to marry his uncle, he hears a rustling behind the curtains and assumes it’s the king. He mistakenly kills Polonius with his sword. This scene between Hamlet and his mother is quite good, as she earnestly tries to understand his emotional and mental states.
Later, when Polonius is dead, Ophelia is stricken with grief. She wears a white slip with torn edges and distractedly plays with flowers. Her brother, Laertes, returns to avenge their father’s death. Soon, he also must grapple with Ophelia’s drowning.
After Ophelia’s burial, Laertes and Hamlet have a lively sword fight, with well-executed choreography. Though Laertes has the advantage of a sword dipped in poison, it does him no good in the end.
Though all the main characters die, through various means, this telling of the tale made it worth staying the two-and-a-half hours to see it all play out. Applying modern mannerisms and costumes, this dynamic cast makes the aged story fresh, entertaining and relevant.
Performances of Hamlet continue today through Sunday and each Thursday through Sunday through May 4 in Nadine Baum Studios. For tickets, call (479) 443-5600 or visit the website at theatre2.org.