Saturday, September 15, 2012

REVIEW: O! THE POWER OF "WORDS, WORDS, WORDS" - 'Hamlet' at Writers' Theatre

Scott Parkinson and Shannon Cochran/ Photo by Michael Brosilow

A body of work as well-tread as the Shakespearean canon has seen it all. From a childish staging of "Macbeth" on a moon bounce at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to last season's Wall Street-evoking "Timon of Athens" at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the Bard's plays have been poked and prodded as though a captive orangutan. Shakespeare's work has seen so many frills and glitter, in fact, that stripped down simplicity - a throwback to the period-be-damned, unit set productions of sixteenth century London - is now looked upon as new and experimental. A single bench? How abstract!

Artistic Director Michael Halberstam's new production of "Hamlet" at Writer's Theatre in Glencoe discovers an exciting medium between the blatantly conceptual and the barebones text-based. Collette Pollard's set is effectively streamlined, but the costumes are comfortably trendy. There is earth-shaking sound design by Mikhail Fiskel, but also the clearest, most honorable treatment of Shakespearean language I've seen and heard on a Chicago-area stage. Though removed of clutter and speaking the same words that have been spoken for centuries, Writers' "Hamlet" feels fresh and rediscovered. 

And thankfully so. "Hamlet", in today's cultural consciousness, has taken on the ominous tonal groan of a graveyard perpetually coated in a fine layer of mist. The seaside wails of a widow paired with the cinematic score of a screen thriller. You see what I'm getting at? Granted, there is an actual graveyard scene in "Hamlet", but it is the funniest scene in the play on paper, containing the closest thing to bonafide clowns you're gonna get. Halberstam has done very well by the treasured story without catering to our preconceived notions as to what "Hamlet" should be. 

This is far more domestic "Hamlet" than any I've seen. Regal formalities are pushed aside in favor of a tense, but casual atmosphere, which is hardly farfetched for a drama taking place almost entirely within the confines of a castle among friends and relatives. What that ease achieves is a sillier and more familial "Hamlet" than most. Michael Canavan's Claudius is not so stereotypically villainous and Shannon Cochran's Gertrude is wondrously maternal. 

And truly aren't those qualities more difficult obstacles for a vengeful son to tackle than archetypal villainy? To murder a cartoony King-killer as he prays in a cathedral is easy, whether God is watching you or not. But to assassinate a calm and collected older gentleman, mighty kingly himself, brings pause. That dusty old vision of skeletal Poloniuses and warbling Oliviers has been usurped, at Writers, by youthful vigor and passion from all.

But of course, more so than any other of the Bard's plays does "Hamlet" revolve around its titular character - that melancholy Dane. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,  here, is portrayed by Scott Parkinson. Mr. Parkinson's age and experience are more venerable than his boyish outer frame lets on, making for a very cool and endearing contrast. The character, less-than-clearly stated, is thirty years old. Mr. Parkinson has just the right blend of scholarly maturity and optimistic angst to both drive the character and maintain the audience's respect throughout the three hours.

A good Hamlet - spending an astonishing amount of time talking directly to his audience - will forge a most special relationship with us. Early in the play, I doubted Parkinson's ability to do this. After all, he makes for a far less depressed  Prince than most, reserving a stockpile of energy that rivals a nuclear reactor's. But it was during those few scenes in Act IV and V - important scenes, mind you. Ophelia goes mad, Laertes returns from war, Ophelia drowns - absent of the Prince, that I missed Parkinson very much. I knew precisely when he was due to return, but I found myself anxiously awaiting his comeback nonetheless. Without my knowing, he got me.

Parkinson's most transcendent, touching moments occur on the ground. Whether Hamlet is reuniting with and interrogating old friends, Rosencrantz (Julian Parker) and Guildenstern (Billy Fenderson), or is sitting, arms entwined with his mother's, narrating the otherworldly actions of his father's ghost, Parkinson is, himself, ethereal and remarkably present. How pale he glares, indeed. At times, however, the muscularity and stamina the avalanche of words requires seems to overwhelm Mr. Parkinson as volume defeats nuance. But despite his few unneeded bouts of rage, his speech is clear in sound and meaning, and he is more caring and purposeful than the dominant pack of misguidedly nihilist Hamlets out there. After all, Hamlet is avenging his murdered father - regicide being way worse than our Plebeian murder - and vengeance is moved by fierce, unrelenting love. 

And I can envision no more loving a stage family than that of Larry Yando as the fallen King Hamlet and Shannon Cochran as the adulteress Queen Gertrude. "Hamlet" always belongs to its Hamlet, yes, but Yando, a brilliant actor of both voice and body, and Cochran, showing tremendous range having just performed her down-on-the-farm Desiree Armfeldt, hold the stage with compelling electricity. Yando's first appearance as the paternal apparition is, without a doubt, the best Hamlet's Ghost I have ever witnessed. As Yando turns his head  at meditative rate, the light reveals a doomed, and legitimately fearsome soul.  And being triple-cast as the Player King, Ghost, and Gravedigger, the interpretations and connecting treads are of enormous intrigue. Usually a tertiary character resigned to retired-but-venerable actors of a company, as portrayed by Yando, the King's ghost is jaw-dropping and tortured.

Collette Pollard provides a simple stone wall and an even simpler stone floor, trusting in the actors' capabilities to take us into all sorts of rooms, halls, battlefields, and crypts. There is a large and black anomaly on the upstage wall - a cylindrical blot, looking as though a bomb exploded and left a nasty mark. Perhaps physicalizing the rot of Denmark and situated above an unassuming mound of brick, I perceived the former resting place of a King's throne, now corroded and poisonous.

Though Pollard's set has the medieval air of cobblestone, David Hyman's costumes are remarkably chic and urban, even in the case of Hamlet. This Hamlet, dressed stylishly hip even as he undertakes his wacky antic disposition, is much more meticulous about his appearance than the typical black turtleneck'd poet. Coupled with Parkinson's aggressive performance, it becomes clear the melancholic suggestion of "not to be" was never on the table. Hamlet is in it to win it.

Sometimes the newfound humor does overpower the more integral drama. Polonius, always a laugh, is played a clown by actor Ross Lehman. But Polonius really is neither a clown nor fool. Hamlet is always the funniest character in "Hamlet", and in his moments of antic disposition, is, for my money, the real fool too - being a step ahead of game. Polonius has clownish attributes, for sure - a sprinkling of malapropism here and there and more than a few pinches of dimwittedness - but the clown is not that character's structural role. Lehman's frequent upstaging robs Polonius of necessary compassion, which creates an unfortunate domino effect that diminishes audience sympathy for Ophelia (Liesel  Matthews) and brother Laertes (Timothy Edward Kane). And Hamlet's tragedy must willingly extend to those three people to be fully felt.

Even with consideration of those deficiencies, it is awfully inspiring to see a company with a titled devotion to playwrights continue that respect and admiration for an author four-hundred years in the grave. An exhilarating , unpretentious production, Writers' "Hamlet" truly is about as  language-driven a production as you will see on a Chicago stage.

'Hamlet' runs at Writers' Theatre (325 Tudor Court in Glencoe) through November 11th. Visit