A trip to that chilly Danish castle, where a famous prince pretends to lose his mind in amusing but tragic ways, is always worth taking, and the Trinity Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet at Texas Christian University is no exception.
Shakespeare wove comedic elements into his tragedy of tragedies, primarily in the forms of the nattering Polonius, the irreverent Gravedigger and in the witty genius of Hamlet himself. Director T.J. Walsh’s production goes a little farther. His interpretation—somewhat unwieldy, but rife with inspired bright spots—pushes the funny every chance it gets.
The vigorous and commanding Andrew Milbourn fulfills one of the most challenging and sought-after roles in all of Shakespeare. It has often been said that the enormous scope of this tragic character is too big for the play, but Milbourn handles the task with fresh and daring aplomb. Milbourn’s performance heats up considerably after he decides to take revenge on his stepfather and don the not-so-inky cloak of insanity. This is not a moping, deep-thinking Hamlet, slowly chewing the scenery; but a springing, sharply clever Dane hell-bent on relishing his newfound purpose. Milbourn loses some crucial melancholy darkness as he occasionally has difficulty reigning in his frenetic take on the character, but the performance is ultimately satisfying.
David Coffee delivers as that dispenser of never-asked-for fatherly advice, Polonius. Coffee finds the perfect doddering voice for the lord chamberlain and nails every corner of every line with impeccable timing. It is a delight to witness this Polonius interact with Hamlet, as they riff off each other with riotous ease.
A young Gertrude (Jessica Cavanagh) and a lasciviously light Claudius (David Fluitt) provide swinging sexual grist for Hamlet’s uneasiness concerning his uncle’s marriage to his mother. Fluitt’s purposefully non-kinglike performance highlights the rotten state that has indeed infested Denmark’s court.
Ophelia (Alyssa Gardner) embodies the sweet, fragile and naïve aspects of the prince’s erstwhile girlfriend. Gardner’s airy madness is of a different animal than Hamlet’s, as well it should be. Unfortunately, her brother, the bizarrely flat and listless Laertes (Justin Bryant Rapp) is not up for the task as Hamlet’s deadly foil.
Richard Haratine as the Gravedigger is predictably hilarious and over-the-top, but the production has already set the comedic tone so strongly by the time he appears that he does not stand out as the proverbial relief.
Brian Clinnin’s simple set of tapestries and the frame of a Gothic vaulted ceiling provide the precise foundation for the action. The costumes, by Ric Dreumont Leal, are sumptuously medieval. Michael Skinner and David H.M. Lambert’s light and sound create an arresting and spooky atmosphere, particularly during the ghost scenes.
This version of Hamlet’s father (played by Alex Chrestopolos) is more ghostlike than many, with his power to stop time and glide slowly in-between the other characters onstage with a wave of his Jedi-like hand. It is a fascinating and refreshing look at the hoary figure that haunts Hamlet, but whatever mild otherworldliness gained comes at the expense of the momentum that the play otherwise generates. The same goes for the acting out of the play-within-a-play. "The Mousetrap" is done in a similar stately format, and drags on a little too long.
Those pesky pacing issues do weigh this staging down, but Walsh’s reading is commendable. He freshens up what has become too conventional in most productions, allowing his actors to deliver their lines, no matter how famous, as whispered asides or up-tempo pronouncements.
Turning an innovative eye on a classic while maintaining its timeless magnitude is no easy feat.
►Hamlet runs in rotating repertory with Much Ado About Nothing. Hamlet is performed on June 16, 18, 20, 24, 26 and 27.