RICH AND DEEP Hamlet (Josh Scharback) and Gertrude (Janis Stevens).
The sad mad Danish prince is probably the most oft-quoted tragic hero in the English language, but he's a lot more than that. He is also, as I was reminded recently by a theater companion encountering him for the first time, pretty exasperating to be around, as well as "kind of a punk." Which is to say that young Hamlet is a precocious and flawed but entirely recognizable type. In the Theater at Monmouth's production, Josh Scharback's young Dane could easily be the wise-ass who sat behind us in chemistry class, the depth of whose intelligence and troubles we never even guessed.
That's a particularly neat feat given director Jeri Pitcher's generally classically styled treatment. Mary Margaret Powers's array of excellent costumes includes chain mail, tunics, and bell-sleeved gowns. The minimalist set by Dan Bilodeau consists of a simple plank platform and two painted slats of wood: one long and vertical, with crude, warm-toned vine patterns; and a textured blue square hung higher up. Both evoke a certain elemental simplicity, but the vertical one winds up having more of a role in the play's action, notably as the fateful arras in Gertrude's bedroom. The square's allusions are more obscure — might it harken to the firmament grown so pestilent to Hamlet, or to the mirror he holds up to the household? Either way, it shouldn't draw so much speculation even as Hamlet's intricate iambs start to fly.
But the mirror might have been a good motif to explore further, because the energy of charged reflections and reactions plays beautifully in this production, as keen as light thrown and changed from one glass to another. Watch the awkward forbearance and exchanged glances of Horatio (Paul L. Coffey) and Marcellus (Liz Helitzer) as Hamlet vents about the improvident double-duty of the funereal meats; or the subtle range of affects Ophelia (Emily Rast) presents to her father, the king and queen, and, of course, the oft-changing Hamlet (I particularly enjoyed the knowingness Pitcher afforded her in her banter with him during the play-within-a-play).
The reactions of Gertrude (Janis Stevens) are particularly rich, as she flits through the lust, self-satisfaction, irritation, and concern of her competing roles of lover and mother. And as the tragedies progress, Stevens's expression of Gertrude's slipping grip is increasingly haunting. In Gertrude's relationship with Claudius (Dan Olmstead), Pitcher emphasizes not just carnality (though it's there, quite engagingly) but genuine love. It makes them a more sympathetic and thus ambivalent presence, particularly as we see Claudius putting up with far more of Hamlet's shit than he's inclined to — not to keep up appearances, but because of his affection for Hamlet's mother.
As for the prince himself, Scharback is at his strongest and most beguiling when Hamlet indulges his wit, "madness," and manic punchiness, lacing his quick patter with fleet and wry facial expressions and rolled eyes. His Hamlet visibly uses this comedy as both defense and offense, and gives us an intimate and unromanticized sense of how his considerable intelligence both helps and thwarts him. However, Scharback should be wary of burying lines and anguish within sustained low and uninflected pitch, and his dramatic speeches could sometimes benefit from more dynamic build and ebb. I also questioned some of Hamlet's pacing — one monologue began before his father's ghost had left the stage lights, and the gorgeous "I have of late..." speech should be slowed considerably.
The challenge of any production of Hamlet is to make its oft-riffed-upon phrases, characters, and tragedies fresh. This show superbly establishes its characters as nuanced and recognizable people. But it could sometimes go farther in letting us feel their aches as they recognize themselves. In the final, frenetic scene, I would steal just a few more moments for the dying characters' devastating self-awareness, to let all of us feel those pangs as if for the first time.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HAMLET by William Shakespeare | Directed by Jeri Pitcher | Produced by the Theater at Monmouth | in repertory through August 21 | 207.933.9999