Saturday, July 27, 2019

Multidimensional tragedy 'Hamlet' marks a new venue for Indianapolis Shakespeare Company

Hamlet (Lorenzo Roberts) peruses the skull of the court jester Yorick.
No character in the brisk two-hour rendition of "Hamlet" in the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company production (at Riverside Park through next weekend) is allowed to go on too long. Rarely has Polonius' sententious "brevity is the soul of wit" been so much the watchword.

Judicious cutting, some of it inevitably regrettable, has taken considerable amplitude out of Shakespeare's longest play. Yet, as seen Friday night in its second performance, the show is clear-cut and well articulated. The production never generates puzzles of its own making. If we would pluck out the heart of its mystery, we probably fail even when we ponder the original text. There is no finality when it comes to "Hamlet" interpretation on page or stage.

Ryan Artzberger directs a version in which one scene nearly treads on the heels of the next. (Dear me! The review is barely under way and already two allusions to the text have bubbled unbidden to the surface. No wonder a newcomer to Shakespeare is said to have complained that his major plays are a bunch of familiar quotations.) The rapid pace may well be what Shakespeare's audiences were used to, even when they had the leisure to take in four hours of action with minimal scenery and natural lighting outdoors, depending instead on verbal cues the playwright readily supplied.

I admired the clarity and punch the cast gave to the lines and action, from Lorenzo Roberts' portrayal of the title character at his most impulsive and conflicted on down through the ensemble. The thorough professionalism of the company's free public presentations on outdoor stages continues to be upheld. You can come to this "Hamlet" with next to no preparation or familiarity and take away an authentic experience of the play's complexity as well as the changes it rings upon the near-forgotten subgenre of "revenge tragedy."

The only important major excision is the thorough muting of the military theme. Power politics beyond the Danish court hangs over the action, but you'll get little here about the monarchy's past and present difficulties with Norway. Though the dimensions of this international strife make the hero's opposition to his uncle Claudius more complicated, this production insists that we concentrate on how he handles the charge from his father's ghost to avenge the senior Hamlet's murder. The production's ghost is spooky enough on each of his appearances, but the "warlike form" observed by the first witnesses is discarded. So is the existential gravamen of the hero's final soliloquy, in which he compares his cause to "the imminent death of twenty thousand men" in battle.

It's certain that you can't reduce a play by half and find everything you've left out truly expendable. I won't deny the effectiveness of how this production concludes, but it removes one aspect of the final tragedy: The extensive slaughter at court, with the Norwegian general Fortinbras coming upon the scene and learning from Horatio about the Danish demise, has settled the political tension in Norway's favor. That something rotten in the state of Denmark has finally suppurated.

Artzberger has given lots of the traditionally male roles to women, most startlingly Horatio, the action's most elaborately drawn witness and Hamlet's loyal, somewhat colorless best friend. The role is among several examples where pronouns are changed to match the gender identity of the actor. Mehry was more moving as Horatio than Hamlet's buddy often seems, so the switch may be felt as an advantage. Also, with a female Horatio, the character's tendency to "mansplain" is off the table, in part through the reduction of his/her speeches.

King Claudius is scrutinized by his nephew.
Roberts may have scanted what is often taken to be a more reflective Hamlet as the play progresses and the hero's dismal prospects become clearer, despite his narrated derring-do on the way to what King Claudius intends to be the prince's fatal exile to England. His intensity nonetheless involves audiences at this stripped-down version more thoroughly, perhaps. As the usurping monarch Claudius, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha seemed at first too obvious in his bravado, as if he didn't care that those close to him might become as suspicious as Hamlet. As the villainous monarch feels his scheme closer to collapse, the portrayal became truer. As his queen and Hamlet's mother, Jen Johansen hid the character's vulnerability well under a facade of entitlement until the scene with the prince in her chamber exposes Gertrude's shame in a nice balance of desperation and maternal love.

In other major roles, the first family at court was well represented by Joshua Coomer's Polonius, played as a borderline-useless counselor and control freak with an increasingly loose grasp; LaKesha Lorene as Ophelia, trying to be a worthy lover and daughter at the same time — an impossible task in this context, resulting in her touchingly well-modulated mad scene; and Ryan Claus, chafingly dutiful as Polonius' son Laertes and finally stirred to an overwhelming rage to get back at the prince he takes to have destroyed his family.

It's hard to help conceiving of the meddlesome roles of the almost interchangeable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without thinking backwards from Tom Stoppard's late-absurdist take on them, but in this case  it works well in the flibbertigibbet performances of Zachariah Stonerock and Scot Greenwell.

Rob Koharchik's jagged, abstract set design looks both menacing and truly royal, complementing the modern-dress costuming. It is deliciously lit by Laura Glover, with the effect being mesmerizing as the sun sets (and you can finally see the actors' facial expressions as well). Todd Mack Reischman's sound design completes the production team's excellence in representing a modernist aesthetic that enhances the timeless appeal of the story instead of competing with it in the interest of a sham up-to-dateness.

[Photos by Julie Curry]

1 comment:

  1. Saw the last performance. The actors portraying Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius were very good, but I thought Ophelia was a cut below. Some of the players raced through their clever lines, losing me in their haste. The gravedigger’s scene was a good example. A fine show in a pleasant setting.