Pro Bono

Innovative direction and the music of U2 distinguish [email protected]'s Hamlet.

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Hamlet is famously a play full of problems, and the greatest problem is Hamlet himself. Why is he suicidal even before he discovers that his father was murdered? Once he learns of the crime, does he only feign madness or does he become truly insane? Does he or did he ever really love Ophelia? Is the appearance of the Ghost in his mother's chamber "actual" or imagined? And most central of all, why does he delay taking revenge on King Claudius? Is it cowardice? Religious confusion (the result of studying at Martin Luther's college, Wittenberg)? Is his inaction unarguably a vice and not a virtue?

The stylish but erratic Hamlet: The Unforgettable Fire currently playing at The [email protected] answers a few of these questions but unfortunately leaves most of the others unaddressed. Still, director Bob Devin Jones' arrangement of visual and aural elements is so strikingly successful, the production outshines many in recent memory. The portentous music of U2 is just right for this existential pageant, as are Patricia Kelly's nearly monochromatic modern costumes and Ben Verhulst's abstract set, the most impressive I've ever seen in this venue. If Hamlet: The Unforgettable Fire doesn't solve every problem in the text, the production is intrepid and innovative, and that's cause for optimism.

Of course, the key to any version of Hamlet is the portrayal of the title character, and it's here that [email protected]'s production is only partly effective. Matt Huffman is a talented actor, at times electrifiying in the role, and when he first wishes that his too, too solid flesh would melt (the first Ghost-on-the-battlement scene has been cut from this version), his distress is palpable and entirely convincing. A little later, when he faces the Ghost and learns of his father's murder, he turns up the volume and, anguished almost to the point of tears, pledges loudly to take revenge on the guilty Claudius.

So far so good; but for the next almost-three hours, we discover little more of this prince than we've seen in those few minutes. With Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, you name it, Huffman offers us these two colors — distressed and exceedingly distressed — and very little besides, with a welcome but too-belated shift in the gravedigger scene near the end. Further, Huffman treats his celebrated soliloquies not as thoughts unfolding in real time (suicide, hmm, yes, no, now that I think it through ... no) but as set speeches in which the conclusion is foregone and the internal drama is missing.

This is a Hamlet who shouts a lot, especially when acting the lunatic (do the insane never whisper? never state their mad thoughts calmly?), and though he naturally alarms just about everyone he meets, it's an exhausting consistency, and not least for the audience. A moment's "slip" — a tinge of pity for Ophelia, say, or a suspicion of melancholy when he finds old friends R&G exploiting him — would have helped make this impersonation much more palatable.

If, on the other hand, there's a performance that's just about perfect, it's Lynne Locher's as Gertrude, the mother who may or may not have been in on her first husband's murder. There are no frills to Locher's acting, no stagy flourishes or attraction-getting oddities — just the centeredness of an artist who knows every last detail of the character she's playing and who plays her through and through. Locher's Gertrude is genuinely in love with her new husband, noticeably pained by her son's distemper but otherwise oblivious to the complications of a world she's none too troubled by. If this Gertrude were alive today, her main concern would be the flower arrangements at the Junior League or what cufflinks to buy dear Claudius for his birthday.

Also excellent is Aleshea Harris as Ophelia, the father-idealizing victim of Hamlet's sexual double-entendres. Harris plays the young woman as a regretful believer in the prince's madness, a credulous romance-addict who enjoyed a season in the sun of Hamlet's affections and now can hardly bear the difficulties of the break-up. (The only flaw in Harris' portrayal is that she also plays her mad scene at top volume, too closely resembling Huffman).

Jeffrey James as Horatio is instantly likeable — the prince usually chooses his friends well, it seems — and John Condon's Polonius, though perilously bland (is it the actor or the character?) eventually comes to seem about right. I wish his murder didn't look quite so phony, though.

The other actors aren't so well cast. Leonard Williams is only occasionally stirring as Laertes, Harry Chittenden is tentative and artificial as Claudius (he looks the part, though, in some strange contemporary way), and Keisha Murray as the lead Player barrels through her speeches without a professional player's discretion. The actors who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don't work together well, the Gravedigger has a confusing accent — in the smallest parts, no one shines.

And still this Hamlet wins more than it loses. In one of the show's very first moments, photos of the prince's early life are projected on a curtain: one features two little boys and reads, "Hamlet age 4, Horatio age 3." It's charming ideas like this that make Hamlet: The Unforgettable Fire a production to remember. This is director's theater with a successful concept, the sort of thing that you find all over the country but not too often in the Bay area. In that sense, it's an important step forward.

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