It's clear from the first moments of American Stage's Hamlet that we're in for an unconventional version of the play. After all, Shakespeare's famous text begins on the battlements of Castle Elsinore, where two guards and Hamlet's chum Horatio confront the ghost of the melancholy prince's father. But this modern Hamlet, as conceived by director Todd Olson, begins in Hamlet's bedroom, with Hamlet himself reciting the "To be or not to be" speech (usually in Act 3) and considering an overdose of pharmaceuticals. Then modern-dressed King Claudius and Queen Gertrude bang on Hamlet's door and try to prevail upon him to give up his "obstinate condolement" — an argument that, in Shakespeare's text, should take place in the king's throne room. As the production continues, we notice another score of departures from the original: Speeches from one character are transferred to another, Horatio never appears (and neither does Fortinbras), a male player becomes female (strictly taboo in Shakespeare's England), and laptops and cellphones figure prominently. And most of all, the play is streamlined — at least an hour and a half seems to have been cut from the original. Is the effect good or evil? Is this the Bard Brilliantly Revisited or is it Shakespeare for Dummies?
The answer, I think, is that it's a little of both. By placing his actors in contemporary dress and modern situations, Olson successfully reminds us that there's nothing musty and "classic" about this great play, that it's as relevant today as it was in 1600. But by slashing away so much of the text, he's left us with a super-efficient machine that seldom has time to build anything affecting. It's striking, it's provocative, and many of the play's most famous moments are powerfully presented. But they don't add up — too much is missing. We leave the theater impressed but unmoved.
Still, there's lots of good acting to keep us attentive. The best news is that, in Gabriel Vaughan, American Stage has found a Hamlet worthy of the name. This is Hamlet as Shakespeare wrote the part: still young enough to be going to university at Wittenberg, scrawny enough to compare himself unfavorably with Hercules and quick-thinking enough to extemporaneously let loose barrages of words aimed at everyone who dares try to get the better of him. Almost everything Vaughan does as the neurotic prince makes good sense: Whether mocking Polonius, hectoring Ophelia or shaming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Vaughan matches the emotion to the word with impressive precision. Only the scene in his mother's bedchamber goes too far: Are we really to believe that while accusing Queen Gertrude of enjoying sex with his uncle, he'd jump on her bed and straddle her as if raping her? But this excess is forgivable: In almost every other case, Vaughan is ideal. I've seen the part played by more famous men but not by any more fitting.
Ophelia's fine, too. The actress who plays this part has the difficult task of making us believe that she would go mad for no other reason than that she's learned of her father's death. Katherine Michelle Tanner accomplishes this feat by making Ophelia supersensitive in her earliest scenes; she's deeply wounded by Hamlet's scorn and shows only a fragment of backbone when warning Laertes not be harder on her than he is on himself. Excellent work is also turned in by Jim Wicker as Polonius; he avoids the pitfall of reducing a complex character to a mere blowhard, and shows us this courtier's goodness along with his shallowness. Chris Rutherford and T. Scott Wooten are very funny as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — they dress and look so much alike, each might easily be mistaken for the other — and Julie Rowe as the Player Queen accomplishes with extraordinary talent the thankless chore of intoning a long monologue from a classical play no one in the audience cares the least about. Rutherford and Wicker are also first class as the Gravediggers who offer Yorick's skull to Hamlet's philosophizing.
The other actors turn in adequate but unrevealing work. Steven Clark Pachosa as King Claudius and Jessica K. Peterson as Queen Gertrude leave all sorts of questions unanswered — such as how deep is their relationship, how complicit is Gertrude in her first husband's murder, was that murder somehow characteristic of the new king? — and Aaron Simms as Laertes is bland and hard to locate psychologically. I missed Horatio — the one person Hamlet never stops trusting — but I enjoyed the special effects that turned the Ghost into a giant, distorted face without a body. The fighting in the final fencing scene is wonderfully performed — this acting business can look dangerous — and there's a strange beauty in Ophelia's mad scene, especially when she cuts out pieces of her T-shirt and names them flowers. I admit I don't have a clue why there's so much red in Frank Chavez's set and Deanna R. Frieman's costumes (the play's not that bloody) but I enjoyed the visuals nonetheless. Let's call it expressionism and leave off insisting on a meaning.
There's an irony to this modern version of Shakespeare's play. When it's at its best, it throws off all carefully updated "concepts" and thrills us the old way: with the Bard's magnificent language. Whether it's Hamlet soliloquizing or the Gravediggers joking, this production is most satisfying when it's just Shakespeare and us, and what difference does it make whether the set is red or blue?
Even so, the cuts that Olson has made are too extreme; the effect, sometimes, is to give us Hamlet's Greatest Hits, the best arias but not the opera. At two and a half hours, it feels — emotionally — too short. This is a play that should put hearts and minds through a wringer. But that's just not the case in this daring — but strangely innocuous — new version.