Hamlet is a play of many mysteries, and one watches each new production to see how these puzzles are solved. Is the title character really insane or is he, as he insists, merely feigning madness? Is King Claudius a benevolent monarch, or does his wickedness also extend to his methods at Denmark’s helm? What about Queen Gertrude: Did she so hastily marry her deceased husband’s brother out of fear, love, or something else altogether? Does Hamlet too much love his mother? Was Ophelia’s death truly a suicide?
The good news about the current showing of Hamlet, a joint production of Tampa Repertory Theatre and Hat Trick Theatre, is that all these and other problems are addressed directly. This is no small feat: I’ve seen productions where every ambiguity was left mysterious, as if the director and actors weren’t even aware of the need to choose.
Not so in this version: watching Robin Gordon beam delightedly as she carries out her queenly duties, we learn that Gertrude is untroubled by her marriage to Claudius, and not the least bit grief-stricken over the loss of her previous husband. Ned Averill-Snell as Claudius also plays answers rather than questions: he offers us the king as a sort of busy capitalist executive, competently running Corporation Denmark, and only troubled that he can’t strong-arm God into blessing his stock options. As Ophelia, Emily Belvo is unusually assertive, not her brother and her father’s puppet so much as a clever woman with moves of her own. And Jonathan Cho as Laertes is blissfully ignorant of anything but his duty to his murdered father Polonius: where Hamlet suffers from too much intellect, Cho’s Laertes benefits from having no intellect at all. Scrutinizing each of these actors, we find ourselves in the presence of that lovely (and much-desired) gift, a credible interpretation. As directed by C. David Frankel, this is a Hamlet to think with.
And then there’s Jack Holloway, in the all-important title role. Let me say first that Holloway is one of the Bay area’s best actors, and one of the few who might be up to the demands of this great role. To some degree, he doesn’t disappoint. Holloway’s Hamlet is never in danger of real lunacy, is moved by anger and resentment more than existential angst, and has no feelings toward his mother other than rage at her all-too-rapid betrayal of old Dad. Is he suicidal? Absolutely, but from an excess of strong feeling rather than a lack of the will to survive. This is a robust, muscular Hamlet, burdened by fate but not dizzied by it. I can’t think of another actor who’s taken this specific approach.
But there are flaws here, too. That robustness is one: Holloway is a big, husky guy, and it’s hard to believe in so well-fed a troubled prince. And on the key mystery of all — why Hamlet delays carrying out revenge — this performance offers no help. Holloway’s prince is no coward, and he hardly can be accused of over-esteeming his uncle’s authority. Freud’s theory — that Hamlet always wanted his father dead, and thus can’t bring himself to punish the man who did the job for him — receives no support in this playing, and neither does any other stance that might explain his inaction. Holloway has a wonderful grasp of his character’s language, his soliloquies make impeccable sense, the scene in his mother’s chamber is flawless … but we don’t get the first clue as to why he won’t kill Claudius. This is not a small defect.
The other actors are a mixed crew. Best of all is Caitlin Eason as Horatio, Hamlet’s truest friend, more concerned about his buddy’s welfare than even his own life. But long-haired Steve Mountan doesn’t make much sense of Polonius (wise patriarch or prattling fool?), and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gi Y. Sung and Adam D. Crain) hardly register at all. Jim Wicker is impressive as Hamlet’s father’s Ghost (thank goodness no special effects get in the way here), but Sung is a lackluster Fortinbras, not a bit convincing as successor to Denmark’s bloody throne. There is one very funny portrayal — Rodner Salgado as the Player Queen — but at three-and-a-half hours, this production is hard to feel jocular about. Other problems are Cody K. Lonch’s costuming — modern at some moments, antique at others, for no perceptible reason — and Bridgette Dreher’s minimal set, which could hardly be more drab. The likable music between scenes is designed by Anthony J. Vito.
Bottom line: a Hamlet with more hits than misses. See it for Holloway (mostly), Averill-Snell, Gordon, and Belvo.
And think, with their answers, of answers all your own.