By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
When I was a young nerd, I would jog to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s audio recording of Hamlet, starring Kenneth Branaugh, soaking in the language, and trying to understand the “secret of its greatness,” the way only ambitious, weird young writers can.
Thus, as I watched Post5 Theatre’s production (at Milepost 5 through May 4th), though I, from habit, knew the text line by line, I was consistently surprised, and more often than not impressed, at how disorienting I found director Paul Angelo’s staging.
Through lighting, music, and genuine risk-taking, Angelo and his cast create something strikingly unusual and quite moving in their take on Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy.
While most productions seek to iron out the tonal variety in the play’s lengthy text, from the start, Angelo heightens it, casting Hamlet’s first soliloquy as a dreamlike, almost sublimely operatic moment, as the cynical world of court politics is frozen around him.
The visitation of the Hamlet’s father’s ghost plays like a horror movie, while Hamlet’s “antic” scenes are pure screwball comedy. While the shifts are occasionally jarring, the scenes themselves are great, and even, at times revelatory, as in the case of the first appearance of the travelling players, where the monologue Hamlet requests of them is performed with a passion and depth seldom, if ever, accorded to it, that brings its latent subtext into brilliant relief.
Post5 artistic director Ty Boice gives an athletic, elastic performance in the title role. In his silences and monologues, he’s magnetic. He’s quite scary when terrorizing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and hilarious, if a little ungrounded, when taunting Polonius. He’s best in the end, when the prince has returned from the sea, serenely resigned and prepared to face his fate.
Hamlet, as you may know, is the Danish prince in the story. His father, also named Hamlet, has been killed by the young Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius (a wonderful Jeff Gorham, who resembles a sinister Earl Blumenauer). With frightening speed, Claudius has married the young Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (a fine Hadley Boyd), and become the country’s new king, in effect robbing the prince of his crown.
Suicidal with grief, Hamlet is informed by his father’s ghost of his uncle’s misdeeds, and commanded to murder the new king in revenge. Being a humanities major, however, the prince is a little cautious and contemplative about the matter, turning what could be a mashup of “Dirty Harry” and “Elizabeth,” into a philosophically transporting exploration of grief and parent/child relationships.
Post5′s cast is stellar throughout. Jessica Tidd makes a big impression as Ophelia, the prime minister’s daughter, and Hamlet’s maybe girlfriend. One of the most thankless roles in world theater, her scenes consist mainly of being yelled at by powerful men who, in most cases, she reveres. Tidd’s performance of the character’s mad scenes is riveting and genuinely moving, never lapsing into the mawkishness or self-indulgence the moments are often prey to.
Post5 company member Philip J. Berns, is also fantastic as both Guildenstern, a classmate of Hamlet, whom Claudius has summoned to the court to spy on him, and a gravedigger. In the latter part Berns gets to demonstrate his formidable comedic chops, and becomes perhaps the first actor ever to integrate Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” into this particular play.
The show’s high points, prior to extremely moving ending, are its most inventive ones. Angelo often shuffles text and staging around, and integrates technology in ways that reinterpret what Shakespeare has written. It doesn’t feel simply showy, though. Instead it seems as though he’s burrowed into the common reading of the story to expose or even hypothesize about its emotional truths.
Is Ophelia signaling to Hamlet that she’s pregnant during the “get thee to a nunnery” confrontation? Just how volatilely suicidal is Hamlet during his “to be or not to be” speech? Dozens of little moments like this crackle within this production, giving it an irresistible energy.
The show’s few dull points involve Laertes, Ophelia’s enraged brother, who, like Hamlet, has lost a father to murder, and who threatens to overthrow Claudius as king. His scenes mainly involve his yelling righteously, and being coaxed into a plot to murder Hamlet by the devious king. The scenes play like harangues, and one can watch the gears of the story slowly turn as they proceed.
Angelo does much better with the travelling players, whom Hamlet has perform a play similar to his father’s own murder to test Claudius’s conscience, in hopes of learning whether the ghost’s story is true. The play, often used as a stiff background to the action, is here a hilarious treat. The players are so lively and comical, one almost wishes for a spin off series, which would follow them as they traveled through Scandinavia entertaining royal families.
The play’s ending is gorgeously elegiac, a lovely blend of action and emotion, somehow summing up and resolving all the various threads and moments that have come before.
As with last year’s MacBeth, Post5 has created a vividly original take on a classic Shakespeare work. It’s a “palpable hit,” as they say in the play’s fencing scene, and you oughtn’t miss.
“Hamlet” at Milepost 5 through May 4th. http://postfivetheatre.wix.com/post5-theatre
Photo by Russell J. Young