On opening night of Hamlet at American Players Theatre, there were frequent amused rumbles in the crowd as the audience recognized words and phrases from the play that have become part of our everyday vocabularies.
“What a piece of work is man.”
“Brevity is the soul of wit.”
“Get thee to a nunnery.”
“To the manner born.”
“Neither a borrower, nor a lender be.”
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
“To be or not to be.” (Of course.)
And many more. That’s because Shakespeare’s most popular play is part of the zeitgeist, as it has been for the last four centuries. (And according to several pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction, we can be comforted that the Bard’s greatest hit will survive far into the dystopian future.)
When asked earlier this spring why APT chose to produce Hamlet for the sixth time in the theater’s history, artistic director Brenda DeVita said, “It is as great a play as we think it is. I was reminded of that in the read-through. Great plays still have something to say to us. They have remarkable insight into humanity. Hamlet requires embodiment by human beings who can really question what it is to be alive today. That is what this cast brings to the text.”
After taking in the production between rainstorms on a pleasantly cool July evening, I emphatically agree with DeVita’s assessment. This invigorating production presents Hamlet’s familiar conflicts and cast of characters, but refocuses the essential questions of love, family, duty, life, death and revenge in a way that makes them astonishingly fresh and relevant. Directed by core company member Jim DeVita, who has also played the troubled prince previously on the APT stage, the solid cast takes Hamlet out of the dusty archives and makes it crackle with intelligence, energy, passion and desperation.
There are dozens of reasons for visiting APT’s outdoor Hill Theatre to see this extraordinary production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, playing now through October 8. Here are my top five:
1. The Dane. Playing Hamlet has made some actors famous (Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud), it’s made some famous actors seem more legitimate (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke), and some less (Keanu Reeves). It’s the ultimate test for many thespians — the Mount Everest of parts.
In APT’s Hamlet, Nate Burger more than acquits himself of this mammoth challenge — in fact, his take on the troubled prince is revelatory. Many actors parce out the character by separating the Dane’s moments into a schizophrenic collage of madness, play acting, love, hatred, grief and rage, but Burger seamlessly folds every impulse into a balanced and complex Hamlet who stands apart from all the other men in the story. Sensitive and witty, Burger’s prince quickly assesses each situation and responds with intelligence, introspection, and surprising humor. He relies on intellect instead of force to solve problems and questions authority while others follow it blindly.
His wordplay also runs circles around his uncle and he outsmarts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so quickly their dullard heads spin. Presenting the play within the play, instructing the players in their roles, and catching his uncle’s guilty conscience in the performance, Burger’s Hamlet delights in the design and immediate effect of his “mousetrap” because he’s the smartest guy in the room. With Burger’s gift for language and his ability to make even the most familiar speech sound new clear, and extemporaneous, he is utterly fascinating to watch.
2. The Ghost. Core company member David Daniel has played fools, blowhards, lovers, servants, soldiers, and literary greats on the APT stage over the years, but he hasn’t been cast as a truly frightening, physically imposing figure until now. Thanks to an enormous tarnished suit of armor, corroding helmet and flowing cape, coupled with a digitally enhanced voice and blank, empty eye sockets, Daniel’s bearded warrior ghost is terrifying. Even if the ghost didn’t control his son Hamlet’s movements, he would monopolize our attention and make us jump out of our skins. No eerie mist or friendly Halloween spectre, this ghost is a larger-than-life Marvel character who will be avenged.
3. The Women. In addition to the male world of soldiering, sword fighting, and murder most foul, Hamlet is known for having two great roles for women; Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother; and Ophelia, his ill-fated love.
As the queen, core company member Colleen Madden brings tremendous maternal love to this role, which is too often written off as vile co-conspirator in her former husband’s murder. Madden’s version infuses the role with love and humanity. Dressed in impeccably fitted, glorious gowns, her Gertrude knows when to smile and wave to the crowd on her new husband’s arm, but she is distracted from every queenly duty by concern for her beloved son. She recoils from Hamlet’s accusations, not because she is found out but because she has disappointed the child she loves more than life. She leads the other women in the play in compassion and heartbreak for all of its victims.
By contrast, Alys Dickerson’s Ophelia shows what happens when women obey the men in their lives and repress their emotions — eventually they implode. Her character is not the innocent, love-sick, manipulated child of many interpretations. This Ophelia is strong and dutiful. She obeys her father and brother when they tell her to quit Hamlet. She buries her feelings when the prince renounces his love for her. She is obedient and cold, until all of the men she loves desert her. Lost, she is overwhelmed by the feelings she was told to abandon.
This production also has many more women in key roles — military ambassadors, and close aides to the king — to demonstrate larger themes about who has power, who is capable of empathy, and who is left to tend to the wounds and bury the dead when men’s desperate, violent plots have come to their dreary conclusion. Core company member Kelsey Brennan is terrific as Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend and only true confidante. And DeVita’s careful arrangement of tableaux in the play’s final act demonstrate that women are the ones who comfort and mourn. They are the ones left to tell this story after the pointless bloodshed of the final scene.
4. The World — Costumes, Lights, and Set. Many Shakespeare productions are transferred from their original times and places to other eras and locations to fit a directing concept. Sometimes that’s effective, or at least amusing. Other times it’s a struggle to draw parallels. This Hamlet is set in a world all its own, making it both visually intriguing and universal. The metal bars, catwalk, and sliding doors of Takeshi Kata’s innovative set design directly echoes Hamlet’s pronouncement that his country is a prison; “A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.” The horizontal steel slats give lighting designer Jason Fassl a plethora of reflective surfaces to saturate with light, and he uses the entire spectrum to great effect. The stage literally glows with neon purples, blues, reds, and greens. Stunning costumes by Daniele Tyler Matthews borrow tailored silhouettes from the 1930s and ’40s, and augment them with flowing sashes and cascades of delicate ruffles for the women, sharp, clean suits for the men in a palette of jewel tones. They create a beautiful world that is at once familiar and fantastic. Costumes for the players in red and black are also exceptional and exotic.
5. The Fall. Audiences love stories where the villain is punished for his evil deeds and in Hamlet, we get to see Triney Sandoval’s Claudius not just pay for his crime, but come apart at the seams trying to hold onto power that he stole from his brother. With each scene, as Claudius’s plans to rule Denmark are undermined by the chaos that Hamlet creates, he becomes more desperate, more enraged, and more unhinged. Sandoval’s long, incremental descent is fascinating to watch and undeniably similar to figures in contemporary American politics. Like his modern counterpart, this unfit ruler cannot work fast enough to cover up his crimes, though he schemes to the very end.
And as DeVita did when he directed Macbeth at APT in 2019, he finds resonance and meaning in corners of the text that are off the beaten path. In this production, he elevates a short exchange between Hamlet and a foreign soldier on his way to Poland to fight over a meaningless piece of ground that will cost countless lives. Staging the exchange across the audience, with Hamlet on stage and the soldier at the back of the house, the meaning literally falls on us. From this point, Hamlet realizes there is no winning in war — including the war he is waging on his uncle.
Thoroughly disillusioned, he doesn’t drive toward the final sword-fighting scene with reckless abandon, but with reluctant resignation. In the end, Hamlet’s realization of the futility of his quest is echoed even more loudly by Horatio’s final speech which bemoans so many “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, and, in this upshot, purposes mistook.”
There is no doubt that Hamlet is a great play. And as Brenda DeVita said, this great play definitely has something to say to us. Thanks to the outstanding production, what you hear may be completely new. That is the genius of this classic, and the company that created it.
(Aside: An Audience Member’s conversation with the Ghost)
So, should I go see it?
Absolutely. Lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold.
What if I’ve never seen any Shakespeare before?
Pursue thou this act. This production is perfect for you — funny, tragic, and real. Do yourself a favor and see this great play done extremely well. You will be surprised at how easy it is to understand, how instantly you care about the characters, and how much of the story you already know. You’ve been soaking in it this whole time.
What if I’ve already seen Hamlet?
Brief let me be. Go again. You’ve never seen it like this.
Go. Swear you will. Go!
(End of Aside)