“Sweet maid” Gertrude calls Ophelia. And all these years you thought she was referring to Hamlet’s unfortunate lady love as a virgin. Not at Trinity Repertory Company, where in Brian McEleney’s 1930s-set staging of Hamlet Ophelia is indeed a uniformed domestic, her brother Laertes a tuxedo’d server of cocktails, and their mother, Polonius, housekeeper to the rotten state of Denmark. If you can get beyond this Upstairs, Downstairs approach to the play, which would make no sociological sense in any time frame, the production (at Trinity Repertory Company through March 5) is fast and fervent, with Stephen Thorne an antic, boyish Hamlet with a rampaging energy and an incipient drinking problem.
Hamlet has, of course, been subject to every auteurial concept the mind’s eye can visualize (this is my third Dane in pajamas), and McEleney’s mostly stays out of the way — though the plot is jarred at various turnings by the idea of Hamlet’s backstairs courtship of the serving girl, from the seeming lack of consternation of mom Gertrude and murderous stepdad Claudius over the unsuitable match to the strings that get pulled to bury her, a suicide, in hallowed ground as a personage “of some estate.” Of course, Hamlet is less about plot than it is about the title character’s existential inability to carry out one, and it is surprising how snugly the garrulous and nosy yet principled parental persona of Polonius adheres to Janice Duclos’s firm factotum in her tailored gray woollen dress, Scandinavian braids, and silver brooches. You wonder how Denmark’s tea would get served or its silver polished, to say nothing of its nutcase prince sorted out, without her.
Providence’s esteemed Trinity Rep has actually been in business for 42 years without tackling Hamlet. For its first assault on the Dane, McEleney cleaves to the troupe’s signature robust playing style while removing the play from stony Elsinore to a European manor house of Noël Coward’s heyday, a corrupt milieu of privilege whose comforts and class distinctions will diminish with the coming war. Along with the crystal and china lined up in profusion along the back wall of production designer Tristan Jeffers’s hodge-podge of a drawing room, pointed irony abounds. As the play opens (and before Shakespeare’s first scene), an on-stage grand piano is tickled by the accomplished Rob Jarbadan as servants circulate with trays, guests tipple, and a formally clad Gertrude and Claudius dance to the strains of “Falling in Love Again.” No wonder Thorne’s slumped Hamlet, nursing a grudge and a gimlet, looks to have an Excedrin headache.
With this Hamlet, Trinity plays to its strengths, deploying its excellent acting company ingeniously and utilizing the multi-level, all-enveloping environment, with its ladders and bridges and cranny-sized side stages all around, that Tony winning set designer Eugene Lee has built into the upstairs theater for the season. Here the play ranges all around the audience and ropes it in. Hamlet’s soliloquies are not lone musings but thoughts thrown right into our laps, with “To be, or not to be” directed by Thorne, who’s seated on the floor of an aisle with a whiskey in hand, to the nervous occupants of the first two seats, as if they might help him wrestle with the conundrum of suicide.