In 1945, Mike Todd brought the Maurice Evans production of Hamlet to Broadway. It was a modern dress version, originally done for a tour of American G.I. facilities the year before. Todd's version made minor cuts in the Evans edition and gave early career exposure to several people who would go on to major American careers, including director George Schaefer, Thomas Gomez, Morton Da Costa, Bernard Gersten, Ray Walston and Allen Ludden. Now, after 29 years in the Shakespeare business, our own Shakespeare & Company has mounted its first production of the same play, also in modern dress, and also with some new people who are destined for major careers as well.
The production in Lenox, Massachusetts runs approximately three hours. A full, uncut version would take about four hours to perform. Obviously there have been some cuts. In some cases lines we expect, because we've read this play in school, are gone. In other cases whole scenes are missing and characters have been replaced by crowd-scene sound effects. There is no scene on the ramparts of the castle introducing Horatio to the spectre of dead King Hamlet, for example, so there goes Marcellus, Francisco and Bernardo and the line about something being rotten in Denmark. In its place is a startling, disconnected and disjointed collection of famous lines from the play spouted in semi-darkness as the strident light/sound combination - representing the "electrical synapse impulses of Hamlet's dying brain, creating flashes of memory or imagination that codify a life" according to the program notes by director Eleanor Holdridge - startles the audience into a near-headache state. It is clear from the outset, then, that this is a different sort of Hamlet.
New to the company, and far and away the finest player on the stage, is John Windsor-Cunningham who takes on three of the most essential roles in the play: Ghost (Dead King Hamlet); Player King; a gravedigger. This extraordinary actor makes each of his character's startlingly different and specific - its real acting, folks. His King Hamlet is strong and almost too real, to corporeal, too daunting. His gravedigger so low and common that when Hamlet himself notes the resemblance to his dead father that realization of the humanity in all of us is as startling to us as it is to him. There is true brilliance in this not-to-be-missed performance. Almost as good, and also first season players, are Kevin O'Donnell as Laertes and Howard W. Overshown as Horatio. Both give well-spoken, clearly defined performances, their characters both unmistakeable and unshakeable.
Elizabeth Raetz as Ophelia may still be finding her way with a role diminished in size and scope from its textual original. Her costume doesn't help and her first act entrance on a pink chair is alarming and silly. In the second act, touching and completing madness, she is riveting, however. Nigel Gore garbles language consistently in Act One as he brings us a tormented Claudius. His over-wrought realization of the trap Hamlet has laid for him in the "play" scene seems to have no reality and no rationale (Player Villain and Player Queen are roles eliminated in this version and those part are taken by Claudius and Gertrude - forced to replay their own parts in the death of King Hamlet). Dennis Krausnick makes as little as possible of Polonius, neither a comic character nor a serious one in this version. He is window-dressing and he stumbles and mumbles his way through his lines.
Tina Packer and John Windsor-Cunningham as Gertrude and the Ghost; photo: Kevin Sprague
Elizabeth Raetz and Kevin O'Donnell as the tragic brother and sister; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jason Asprey is just not right as Hamlet. I don't mean his mental state which he plays with a certain flair. He's just not yet ready for this role. He turns many of his lines into monotonous, halting readings, his monologues into ultimate tedium. There is little sense of character development in this most finely realized character in the Shakespearean canon. He also wears the most ridiculously Elizabethan costume for no observable reason - but that's not his fault, I hope.
As Hamlet's mother Gertrude, however, we have Tina Packer - Asprey's own mother. I think that this version of the play could easily have been renamed "Gertrude" for here is one of the prize performances of the decade. Packer must have been born to play this role for she is superb. Every gesture, glance and line is telling. She is ever-present when onstage - you really can't look at anyone else. When she is off-stage you are still somehow aware of her. Her scene in her room with her son is tragic to the extreme, and yet never maudlin, never saccharine. She is a woman in mourning for the loss of another human being. You simply have to see what this woman does in this role. There's no escaping it.
Holdridge does a lot with the play, but her concept often gets in the way of the heart of the play. Good actors manage to pump blood anyway and Tom Wells and Kenajuan Bentley as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also add a different dimension to the show. We already know, from its long history, that Hamlet will survive the garbled, mushy orations; Hamlet will survive the modernist concept. This particular Hamlet will live in his mother's work and hopefully someday our local Hamlet will try on the role again, when it is better sized and suited to his talents.
◊ 07-08-06 ◊
Plays in repertory through August 27 at the Founders Theatre. Tickets are $18 to $54. The play runs 3 hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call 413-637-3353. For more information on the season go to their website at www.shakespeare.org.