Hamlet was a lost, lonely young man in the Kings County Shakespeare Company's production. He talked to himself a lot (well, that's in the script), but there was no one for him to connect to. His mother couldn't help, she had her own welfare to attend to; his father was dead, and Hamlet couldn't forgive him for leaving him alone. His girlfriend wasn't much help either -- she was more like her hapless father than she knew. All was as usual in the state of Denmark.
But was it Denmark? Director Jemma Alix Levy set the play in a mostly black box with a herald or two and a throne off to the side, letting the characters and the dialog set the scene. But the striking costumes (by Rebecca Dowd) had a distinctly Victorian cast, which gave the oddest feeling of this being Shakespeare by way of Dickens. Dickens knew his Shakespeare, of course, but in this stately presentation, parallels began to arise between these characters and their Dickensian counterparts. Hamlet (Sean McNall) seemed very much like David Copperfield, trying to find his way around inhospitable environs. Ophelia (Shannon Emerick) was Little Nell, dressed in black and at the mercy of others; Polonius (Jeffrey Guyton), while not a ditherer, had a bit of Mr. Micawber about him, with his fur wrap and his top hat; and the ghost of Hamlet's father (Dan Snow), present in voice only, was eerily reminiscent of Jacob Marley. Gertrude (Deborah Wright Houston) wanted to be Peggotty to her son, but couldn't (no wonder she chose to drink the poison); and Claudius (Cullen Wheeler), while not as sharp or hard as Murdstone, was certainly as single minded.
But this was Hamlet, and care was taken in the acting and direction to keep the text crystal clear, allowing it to be a story about people rather than about language. Yet it was drier than the events being related, respectful rather than impassioned. This Hamlet, poor guy, seemed doomed from the outset, convinced that his efforts would mostly be in vain, which made his attempts at heroism and revenge unusually heartbreaking. The production even started off with part of "To be or not to be" before the usual beginning of sentries on the parapets, which made what followed all seem like a flashback. Hamlet's soliloquies were often directed to members of the audience, making the poor boy seem even more alone. The director's stated intent was for the audience to see the tragedy purely from the Prince's point of view, and hearts did go out to the guy. McNall was so thoughtful and appealing that Hamlet's "madness" was actually endearing, and it was painful to see his neediness go unheeded.
Even Horatio (Matt D'Amico), although sympathetic, couldn't get on his wavelength, but he had costume problems of his own, in a Kafkalike derby, overcoat, and glasses. Rosencrantz (Basil Rodericks) and Guildenstern (John Jimerson) were like carpetbaggers, so it was a pleasure to know their fate in advance. The players, though, seemed like the players in Nicholas Nickleby, performing for their own amusement, and Laertes (Ben Masur) seemed quite like Nicholas Nickleby himself, striving to correct injustices in the world. Maybe that made Hamlet into Smike -- appealing, unable to cope, and doomed.
The lighting (designed by Doug Filomena) gave wonderful atmosphere, particularly where the ghost was concerned. The acting provided plenty of emotion, even if the action was unfortunately passionless. What juice there was came from Jane Titus as the Gravedigger (a jewel of a bit) and there were inklings of it in her Player Queen. There was also a surprisingly alert and polished fencing match (fight director Lucie Chin) with its attendant poisonings and deaths, but all the Dickens allusions in the world (conscious or un-) won't give Hamlet a happy ending. Not everyone's lucky enough to have an Aunt Betsy around when he needs one.
Also with Jovinna Chan, Evan Franca, Lara Silva, and Joseph Small -- a character actor's character actor.
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Copyright 2002 David Mackler