Review “Hamlet”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Nov. 25
Tickets: $35-$70
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

While watching the carefully crafted production of “Hamlet” at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, I had a minor epiphany. Even with an exceptional ensemble and excellent staging, both in evidence under Artistic Director Michael Halberstam‘s direction, this most famous Shakespearean play will only work (in an age when most theatergoers have seen it several times) if we really care about the title character and his plight.

Scott Parkinson’s comparatively mature, technically masterful Hamlet is fascinating but not at all sympathetic. We may be impressed by the skill he brings to expressing the rage and pain brought on by his father’s Ghost (Larry Yando, made up so he’d make a terrific vampire), his formidable antics including taking the part of the queen in the play-within-the-play (an interesting, if not entirely successful, directorial touch), and his alternating bouts of inertia and frantic action, but he comes across as so distasteful and mean-spirited, the fact that he’s been deeply wronged and his efforts to exact revenge don’t register as they should. In fact, I felt more for Laertes, portrayed with understated but heartfelt emotion by Timothy Edward Kane, than I did for Hamlet.

Part of the problem is that the distinction between when Hamlet is feigning madness and when he’s genuinely driven beyond reason is murky, so we can’t share in his aplomb at pretending or fully empathize at his loss of control. The complete lack of chemistry between Parkinson and the Ophelia of Liesel Matthews exacerbates matters. We don’t believe they ever loved each other, so his treatment of her comes across as relentlessly cruel without any mitigating or explanatory circumstances. There’s seemingly little love lurking beneath his verbal assaults on his mother, Gertrude (a convincingly stately and worried Shannon Cochran), either, only the violent disgust he feels at her marrying his father’s murderer.

Among the other performers, Ross Lehman’s Polonius strikes just the right balance between officiousness and fatherly concern (in a play where characters spend a lot of time giving each other advice), while Kareem Bandealy’s Horatio makes a fine level-headed foil to Hamlet. Michael Canavan’s Claudius lacks the manipulative malice that his deeds require, and his attack of guilty conscience is surprisingly mild. Besides being a first-rate Ghost, Yando shows his range with compelling turns as the lead Player and the Gravedigger. At the other end of the spectrum, Julian Parker throws away his comic opportunities as Osric, and his Rosencrantz isn’t much better, though Billy Fenderson’s competent Guildenstern compensates somewhat. Witold Huzior plays several small parts, and his Polish accent serves him best as Fortinbras.

Halberstam keeps the play’s period nonspecific, and the result is Collette Pollard’s highly functional scenic design featuring a back stone wall — with a gash that looks like it’s from a cannonball — and a stone-paved courtyard that could be inside or out. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound, and David Woolley’s fight direction all contribute to the atmosphere. David Hyman’s raggedy punk post-modern costumes with Elizabethan references are less successful: I found Gertrude’s unflattering gown and ratty neck ruff especially intrusive.

All in all, Writers’ “Hamlet,” judiciously trimmed by the way, isn’t the palpable hit one might hope for, but it is an interesting take on a fairly traditional interpretation.