Hamlet at the Jungle Theater

Hugh Kennedy as Hamlet skewers Doug Scholz-Carlson as Laertes in Hamlet at the Jungle. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Hamlet (at the Jungle Theater, through Oct 9) is the greatest play ever written.  William Shakespeare‘s sinuous exploration of (in no particular order) revenge, love, ambition, power, madness, violence, suicide, lust, agonizing passivity, aristocratic privilege represents, along with the Sistine Chapel, the Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Giza and the 9th Symphony, a truly great human achievement.  Serious play-goers need to revisit this masterwork regularly, by studying the text and by attending, whenever possible, a production.  The last Hamletin these parts was at the Guthrie, in 2006.  We’re ready for another.

And the Jungle Theater delivers it, an ultra-modern, 21st century rendering, complete with smartphones, iPads, CNN sound bytes, teeming airports and laptops.  This makes for some striking effects.  For example, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is first seen on a security camera, as he stalks the drab concrete corridors of a modern government building.  Hamlet rushes to meet him on the 12th floor, and the ghost takes him down to the sub-sub-basement for their gruesome and galvanizing scene.  I have never seen this sequence done this way and it was revelatory.

But this came at a price, for it requires a lengthy set change, mid-scene: the set-shifters came out in half light to strike the elevator, move the massive columns around, creating the basement.  Then the scene began again – with much of the energy gone.  Indeed, my greatest criticism of this otherwise worthy production is that there are too many endless scenery shifts.  It gives the show a herky-jerky rhythm and a start-over energy that, imo, interferes with the flow of the rich story.

(Two caveats here: 1. I saw the opening night production and there was a nervousness and a slightly under-rehearsed quality to the show.  No doubt the tech for Hamlet was overwhelming.  After a few performances smooth things out, this problem may be less severe.  And 2. This may not bother you as much as it does cranky old me.)

Hamlet is portrayed by a young up-and-comer, Hugh Kennedy, and he gives the Dane with a coiling, loose-limbed 21st century presence.  Quick to whip out his cellphone or a small book of poetry.  Vicious in his sudden ripostes.  His anger and revenge-lust are sublimated, as Hamlet plays along with Claudius’s high-tech king-show, all the while plotting revenge.  Kennedy does quite well with Shakespeare’s gorgeous language and his understated approach makes for some terrific moments.

But I often missed Hamlet’s agonizing, his almost suicidal self-chastisement.  This is the Hamlet we identify with – and love.  Inexplicably, director Bain Boehlke has eliminated or severely cut back several of Hamlet’s harrowing soliloquies (most notably the marvelous “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” wherein the Dane demands of himself, “Am I a coward?”)  Without this material Kennedy is forced to fall back on simple anger and bitterness.  Still, Kennedy holds his own with a sturdy and often surprisingly fresh performance.

There is a curious sexlessness in this Hamlet.  This made itself felt in the “Nymph, in thy orisons” scene which depends for effectiveness on a vivid (and in this case absent) erotic charge between Hamlet and Ophelia.  And, especially, I felt it in the boudoir scene between Hamlet and Gertrude, set here, oddly, in a sitting room, with Gertrude still wearing her Pat Nixon frock.  Delivered from a formal chair Hamlet’s reference to “the rank sweat of an enseaméd bed” doesn’t play as effectively as it should.  Michelle Barber, normally an actor of range and raw power, is, in this scene, unfortunately bland.

Still, there is a much to admire here.  Barber is very good elsewhere.  And Bradley Greenwald, no surprise, is terrific as Claudius (indeed, I’ve never seen a Hamlet so firmly in the Claudius camp).  Gary Briggle is admirably fussy as Polonius and as his two children, Laertes and Ophelia, Doug Scholz-Carlson and Erin Mae Johnson give straight-forward, unaffected and very effective performances.  I particularly enjoyed Ophelia’s youthful sweetness.  In the mad scene Boehlke provides her with one of his niftiest staging effects – see the play.  As Horatio, Paul Rutledge is sturdy and faithful.  Christopher Kehoe does nice work as the foppish Osric.  Brad Kastendick and Peter Middlecamp play “Rosen-stern” as sweet, collegiate – and evil – frat boys.

This is not a perfect production, but it’s solid.  And Hamlet is a great great play.  You need to see this show.

For information about John Olive, please see his (newly updated) website.

2 comments for “Hamlet at the Jungle Theater

  1. Peter
    October 2, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    Saw the matinee on Oct. 2. That was one terrific Hamlet production. My favorite Hamlet in this old man’s life. No. I didn’t mind the scene changes. I thought it moved along quite well. I too, would have liked the fuller Hamlet text. I found it very satisfying nonetheless. I find no fault other than the gravedigger’s costume. And I like the three skulls played. The costume was rather Dickenesque. Anachronistic. I see grey or brown custodial shirts and slacks, with a hooded sweatshirt. Great fight scene.

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