The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of Hamlet begins and ends with the stage bathed in the grey spectrum — the black jackets of a modern court, the white accoutrements of a fencing match — but it’s the scenes when bursts of color intrude that the show really grips you.
The blues of broken hearts, the red flash of sudden violence — betrayal is given a dark, collegiate green. As directed by Michael Kahn, this 21st century Denmark clings to its human elements with both hands. From time to time, you forget Hamlet is a prince because the staging so focuses on him as a son, a lover, and a friend.
From the leading man on down, the decision has been made to play these Elsinore residents as people first and Shakespeare characters second. You’ve never seen a more energetic take on the title role than Michael Urie’s, but even when he’s leaping around the stage or sprawling across a sofa, Urie reminds us this Dane is a fish out of water. Vengeance has been thrust upon him; he’d much rather be back at Wittenberg, his head buried in a book. Urie does a first-rate job with Hamlet’s journey, from wide-eyed to grimly wrathful, without ever overselling any of the transitions.
It’s not an accident that the two best scenes in this ultra-familial production are Hamlet’s confrontations with his parents. The tagline for this show could be “He Killed the King — And This Time It’s Personal.” As the Ghost, Keith Baxter revels in cutting through the smoke machine and spooky lights. “Thus was I sleeping by a brother’s hand / Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,” he accuses. After a slow start, the play sparks into life between Baxter and Urie, and their embrace is surprisingly touching.
And it’s tough to take your eyes off Madeline Porter as Gertrude. Hers is a queen who will keep you guessing, right up until the last scene. “O Hamlet, speak no more / Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,” she beseeches during their bedroom head-to-head. He keeps talking of course, and gets the biggest laugh of the night with “Good night, mother.”
As Claudius and Polonius, Alan Cox and Robert Joy, respectively, eschew broad villainy in favor of more banal, bureaucratic evil. No mustache-twirlers are they. The actors measure themselves, and into good portions.
The minimalist, vaguely totalitarian set by John Coyne and music from Broken Chord both left me cold. The latter is too intrusive, and the former is going for Surveillance State but simply lands on sterile. Similarly, Jess Goldstein’s costumes seem stuck in first gear: I kept waiting in vain for an outfit to really make a statement, with the exception of Joy’s natty three-piece suit. But never underestimate the value of great lighting; designer Yi Zhao paints every scene, even when ugly fluorescents are the palate.
The human element, however, is all here, and that’s more important. It’s almost too personable, as a matter of fact. In the end, the pile of bodies never really rises to the level of tragedy. It just feels like a big mess. Uh, yeah, Fortinbras, you should probably take the reins — clearly we screwed this one right the hell up. We miss out on “From this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” We miss out on the divine justice.
But this is more a complaint of tone than substance. This Hamlet has the goods, whatever you expect from Shakespeare’s longest, most famous play. The play’s the thing, as they say. Hamlet fans would be foolish to miss this one.