Another take on 'Hamlet' is a mixed bag

Posted: July 25, 2011

This review of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's Hamlet (currently running in repertory with Pride and Prejudice) comes with an important disclaimer: In this profession, you see an awful lot of pretenders - both worthy and less so - to Denmark's throne. Male, female, prerecorded, live, filmed, boldface-named, de- and then re-reconstructed in German, viewed through his ill-fated peers' limited lens; the maybe-mad prince's message is as difficult to pin down as his father's ghost, though everyone wants to try.

PSF's production is the Philadelphia area's third professional effort this season alone, and I'd place it dead center in the continuum: interesting, with its repressive, spare Victorian-meets-institutional design (Steve TenEyck's set features what appears to be a two-tiered prison gate, three carved, upholstered seats, and not much else; Sam Fleming's costumes favor mourning garb), but not ambitious enough to challenge an experienced Hamlet-goer. After all, dressing the Danes in black and slinging them across the floor on wheeled side chairs, while a playful bit of staging, does not a point of view make.

Director Patrick Mulcahy doesn't leave too many of his own footprints around Elsinore, which is fine, if a missed opportunity. Justin Adams' Hamlet jokes and prods instead of brooding. He's no thinker, his madness ruled more by impetuousness than method. He's Denmark's Robin Williams, a little obnoxious, a bit forced, often overpowers a scene, but somehow remains sympathetic. It's telling that real-life husband and wife and PSF vets Greg Wood and Susan Riley Stevens, as Hamlet's uncle/stepfather, Claudius, and mother, Gertrude, and Mairin Lee's Ophelia all seem like supporting characters. Even Ophelia's tragic descent into madness plays like a speed bump, a distraction that occurs between Hamlet's appearances. It's a valid interpretation, this thrusting Hamlet front and center, but it's one that cuts off the entry points that allowed Tom Stoppard to peer in and riff on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Strangely, Wayne S. Turney, as "tedious old fool" Polonius, is the sole actor whose performance stands up to Adams' delivery, forcing him to modulate. In his dual role as the Grave Digger, Turney is catalyst for the production's most thoughtful, reflective scene, Hamlet's return from exile - you know: skull in hand, "Alas, poor Yorick." It's a brief peek at the possibilities firmer direction might have yielded, but alas.

Again, Mulcahy's vision, while remaining on well-trodden - if occasionally uneven - ground, works. To see or not to see is a question best answered by considering how many other Hamlets you've seen lately.


Hamlet

Playing at: Penna. Shakespeare Festival, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa. Through Aug. 7. Tickets: $25 to $50. Information: 610-282-9455 or www. pashakespeare.org


 

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