I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen “Hamlet,” but I keep coming back, knowing that I’m likely to take away something new each time. In the case of the production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy now at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, the emphasis is on family, twisted 180 degrees from Leo Tolstoy’s opening lines from “Anna Karenina”: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No, in this “Hamlet” directed by Writers’ Theatre’s artistic director, Michael Halberstam, an unhappy royal Danish family is not all that different from that dysfunction bunch down the street or downstairs.
That emphasis works, but it is not enough to carry the production. The all-star Chicago cast might be enough — and most are excellent in their roles — but some of the power of Shakespeare’s poetry is diminished by choices in stagecraft, a case of not letting well enough alone. Productions at Writers’ Theatre work best when they take advantage of the intimate space to focus on character and storytelling, a recent example being their beautifully scaled production of “A Little Night Music.” In “Hamlet,” Halberstam seems to be going for pomp, which not only is at odds with the setting but also disrupts the action.
But first to that excellent cast: Scott Parkinson makes for an exciting Hamlet, emphasizing the character’s brains over his brooding. And why shouldn’t Hamlet brood? After all — no spoiler alerts needed for Shakespeare — his father has died suddenly, and his mother, Gertrude (played by the regal Shannon Cochran), has instantly remarried: “The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Worse yet, the man who has bedded Hamlet’s mother and usurped his father’s throne is none other than the dead king’s brother, Claudius (Michael Canavan, who plays the part too gently, shrinking the conflict between Claudius and Hamlet that propels much of the play).
Could the situation become anymore uncomfortable for the young prince? Well, yes. Hamlet’s buddy Horatio (Kareem Bandealy) tells him that the night watchmen spotted his father’s ghost. Hamlet must see this for himself, and right on cue, the shadowy figure of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father (Larry Yando, fresh off his triumph as Roy Cohn in Court Theatre’s “Angels in America”) appears to announce that Claudius poisoned him. Yando’s menacing voice would be enough to scare anyone. It’s unfortunate, then, that the choice was made to amplify and reverberate that voice, Darth Vader–style, to demonstrate his status as a wraith. Doubly unfortunate, then, that it seemed to echo Yando’s three-year national tour as Scar in “The Lion King.”
It’s a shame to mess with acting of this caliber, which needs no enhancement. An even more disruptive sound cue occurred before each of Hamlet’s soliloquies. In a typical production of “Hamlet,” extraneous characters exit when Hamlet begins a monologue, but in the modest square footage at Writers’ Theatre, the other characters simply froze in place as Hamlet spoke. That would have been enough, without shining a harsh spotlight on Parkinson. Even the spotlight would have been OK were it not for the sound cue of a few rattling chords. Rather than announcing, “Hamlet is speaking,” the clatter seemed to suggest that “Law & Order” was about to begin. The effect was so distracting that it KO’d the beginning of “To be or not to be.”
Back to the familiar plot: Hamlet confronts his mother in her bedchamber about the murder and, thinking that Claudius is hiding behind a tapestry, plunges his sword into the eavesdropper, only to discover that he has killed the court chamberlain, Polonius, played by Ross Lehman. Lehman brings poignancy to the usually pompous Polonius, showing him to be a concerned father — again, that theme of family — to his son Laertes (the masterful Timothy Edward Kane) and daughter Ophelia, played by Liesel Matthews, a fine actor but perhaps not the best match for the role.
With such an array of Equity actors on a small stage, Halberstam made the decision, both practical and inspired, to have several players double up on parts. Rather than limiting Yando to the role of the Ghost, Halberstam brings him back to play the part of the king in the play-within-a-play that Hamlet stages in an attempt to guilt out Claudius — in other words, the dead king comes back to play himself as a character on stage. Adding to the layers of meaning is that the Player King performs with the Player Queen, in this case Hamlet in drag. The role-playing does double duty: Hamlet taunts Claudius and his mother with his outrageous behavior while he demonstrates the complexity of his character. Another nice touch: while watching the play-within-a-play, Rosencrantz (Julian Parker) and Guildenstern (Billy Fenderson) unwrap sweets in a parody of annoying theatergoers everywhere.
Backdrops are of minor importance in most productions of Shakespeare, so the crumbling stonewall that made up the set was adequate — although the accompanying stone tomb, covered with an anachronistic sheet of plastic, was puzzling. More important is how the stage is used and how the production is scaled to suit its environs. In this regard, the relatively small stage should have served to magnify the interaction between actors, although oddly, it didn’t seem to do that. Where the use of space best succeeded was at the bloody end of the play, where a realistic swordfight (credit to fight director David Woolley) pulled theatergoers into the action.
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe
Through November 25
Tickets: $35 – $70 (check for discounted same-day “Tweet Seats”)
Box office: 376 Park Ave., Glencoe; 847-242-6000; www.writerstheatre.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow