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BY CHOOSING TO SET WILLIAM Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in a vaguely 1930's, vaguely military society under dictatorial rule, director Eric Simonson gives the audience more access than is usual to the social world of the play. But his interpretation also burdens the play with a sense of decorum it doesn't need. This production's overly civilized environment fails to depict human passions that function outside society, a necessary element of a truly successful tragedy.
Campbell Scott's Hamlet is a microcosm of the production itself, as his desire to avenge his father's death is tamed by the play's genteel environment. Delivering lines with playful refinement, Scott's performance works best when he banters with Polonius (David Cromwell) or soundly rejects the love of Ophelia (Natacha Roi). But his passionate soliloquies fall flat, failing to tear the polite veneer from his countenance. His only way of communicating unbridled passion is with a hollow scream, which sounds insincere and empty.
Scott's Hamlet is simply too genteel. Wearing Allison Reed's stylish costumes--black silk pajamas replace the ripped stockings that Ophelia describes--Scott unintentionally makes it seem that Hamlet's tragic flaw is vanity. The Prince cannot kill anyone; the exertion would mess up his hair.
In contrast, Simonson's focus on society does wonders for Roi's Ophelia, the revelation of this production. Unlike the standard, innocent interpretation, this Ophelia is a sophisticated and mature woman trapped by Hamlet's love because she has nothing else to which she can look forward. Her insanity and death painfully demonstrate the extreme fate of women in many cultures, who have no option but to marry and if that fails no reason to live.
Cromwell's Polonius is equally successful because comedy functions best within society's confines, and his is an unreservedly comic role. As the long-winded Lord Chamberlain and father of Ophelia, Cromwell never fails to get a laugh, as he constantly finds longer ways to say things. Particularly memorable is the scene where he takes at least a hundred lines merely to say that Ophelia is the cause of Hamlet's insanity, prompting Queen Gertrude (Mary Beth Peil) to utter the famous lines, "More matter, less art."
Peil as Gertrude and Jordan Charney as King Claudius are both unmemorable. Even in the pivotal scene where Hamlet confronts his mother in her bedroom, Peil's performance shows far too much reserve to evoke passion. Charney's performance suffers in the same way, especially as he contemplates his murder of Hamlet's father. His charm and gentility greatly mar his performance, as they subvert the evil that he attempts to convey.
To its credit, this Hamlet has beautifully integrated production elements, as Robert Brill's inspired sets lead the actors into a maze of inner and outer spaces, anticipating their every move. Brill accomplishes a minor coup when Hamlet kills Polonius behind a curtain that runs from floor to ceiling of the theatre. The enormous curtain drops to the ground, burying Polonius under it.
The actors also blend well with this world, each performing according to the sensibilities of Simonson's civilized society. But they eventually suffocate in the environment they've so masterfully created, as their deaths at the end of the play are also precisely when Simonson's conception entraps them, preventing tragedy from emerging out of its concrete environment into a realm that transcends society.
As Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet each fall to the ground, their deaths arouse little emotion. They have no implication outside the world of the play and therefore cannot move an audience into fear and pity. They reveal little of the universal human condition that is at the heart of the play. This production of Hamlet gets lost in its choices, moving the play's action in to the domain of the banal.
Even as individual moments and performances delight, Simonson's Hamlet accomplishes little of the play's potential to purge human emotion and cleanse the spirit. The effort is admirable and is at many points entertaining, but the end result does little to rouse the audience's imagination to the full effect of this great tragedy.
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