In case you didn't attend high school in the Western, English-speaking world, Hamlet is the story of the titular prince of Denmark (Shawn Pfautsch), who returns home from school for his father's sudden funeral to find that his father's brother Claudius (David Turrentine) has assumed the throne and married Queen Gertrude (Janet Haley). Once the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to tell him that his untimely death was at Claudius's hand, Hamlet sets out to prove the new king's treachery and to avenge his father. Along the way, of course, Hamlet breaks the heart of his young lover, Ophelia (Lydia Hiller), kills her father Polonius (Alan Ball), and generally leaves a swath of dead people in his wake.
Director Janice L. Blixt creates a sleek and appropriately timeless world for her Hamlet, which (thankfully) throws the focus on the story and the characters rather than the expectations of pumpkin hose and historicity. Overall, the staging and storytelling are evocative and clear, leading us along Hamlet's path with authority, carefully building to the bloody denouement. She treats Hamlet as a clever and traumatized young man whose performances weigh on him as he builds toward his ultimate demise. The ghost scenes are particularly well done, leaving mystery and malice hanging in the air with each appearance. However there are a few moments that fall inexcusably short of the stakes set by the circumstances. In particular, the scene in Gertrude's bedchamber, which (spoiler alert) features Polonius's murder, is played with almost no recognition that there is a wrongfully killed man on the floor behind them. That murder is a turning point for everyone in the play, and it is delivered and dismissed with so little fanfare that one might wonder why Ophelia couldn't just quit her whining and get over it like everyone else. Don't get me wrong here - I did like the production. In fact, I liked the production enough not to understand why it fails to live up to itself in a key moment like this, when so many other moments deliver such power and life.
Shawn Pfautsch is an energetic and engaging Hamlet, effectively embodying the claustrophobia of his situation (particularly in the first half of the show). And while this is, of course, a great tragic role, for my money, Pfautsch is at his best in his moments of comic counterpoint, wearing Hamlet's "antic disposition" with creativity, charm, and laser focus. David Turrentine is a bit strident and one-note as the deceptive King Claudius, playing the power-monger from the first moment, therefore having little room for discovery. His relationship with Janet Haley's Gertrude is cold and distant, giving us little clue as to why either would have married the other in the first place. Brandon St. Clair Saunders is solid and strong as Hamlet's stalwart confidant Horatio. And the final moment between him and Hamlet is flat out excellent. Lydia Hiller delivers an uneven performance as Ophelia, but her deeply affecting mad scene in the second act made me wonder if her first act performance might have just been an off night. Sam Hubbard as her hot-headed brother Laertes has his best moments when he is with his family, every bit the big brother and the fond son in a way that makes this family's downfall all the more poignant. And speaking of this family, one of the highlights of this production is definitely Alan Ball's delicate portrayal of Ophelia and Laertes's father Polonius. He scrapes away the traditional doltish caricature of the role in favor of simple truth, finding both comedy and tragedy in his earnestness as both a father and a civil servant. And the added bonus of his reappearance as the gravedigger drives home Ball's comic mastery. Edmund Alyn Jones and Topher Payne as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play the build of their bewilderment well. The rest of the supporting cast - Joe Lehman, Eric Eilersen, Rick Eva, Daniel A. Helmer, and Rachel Hull - fill out the world with appropriate investment. (Though I can't help but lodge a pet peeve with those absurd blue electric cigarettes, which were way overused in this production. You're talking to the Prince - maybe don't blow smoke in his face, huh?)
Jeromy Hopgood's scenic design is elegant and open, though I must admit, it is probably a little too open for the world of deception and captivity that this production set out to highlight. Diane Fairchild's lighting design, on the other hand, uses shadow and angles to great effect in illustrating a world haunted at least as much by misdeeds of the living as by ghosts of the dead. Kathryn Wagner's costumes are straightforward and effective, though I found the gray suit in which Gertrude appears for the bulk of the show downright unforgivable. It's quite a feat to make the statuesque Janet Haley seem frumpy. Kate Hopgood's sound design adds depth and mystery to the world. Her contribution to the ghost sequence ("SWEAR!") is all the right kinds of spooky, and the production would have been served well by incorporating that sort of element at more points along Hamlet's emotional journey.
While this production certainly has its foibles, overall it is a thoughtful and well-acted offering to the long history of Hamlets. So, if it all comes down to "To see, or not to see" (with apologies to William Shakespeare), I come down firmly on the side of "to see!"
Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Director: Janice L. Blixt) continues at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival through August 17. Tickets range from $31-$40. For more information, visit http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/.
NOTE: I regret that I will not be able to make it out for the MSF's third offering, Cymbeline. It is a play that, in my opinion, is not done nearly enough. And I applaud them for giving this gem its day! Don't miss your chance to see it!