Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through June 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s latest production of “Hamlet,” the third in its three-decade history, we first see the Prince of Denmark grieving over his father’s grave in the driving rain. This sad, somber moment, not in Shakespeare’s text, helps set the tone for director Barbara Gaines’ interpretation of the play, which doesn’t break any major new ground but does incorporate many interesting details.
The atmosphere is dark and stormy, literally as well as figuratively. Scott Davis’ streamlined scenic design relies heavily on black, except for the gold-toned arras, among them the one through which Polonius is stabbed. Susan E. Mickey’s modern-dress costumes feature a lot of black, too, as well as gray and other neutral, sometimes shimmery, colors. Robert Wierzel’s lighting leans to dim or harsh, while Lindsay Jones’ sound design and compositions range from thundering storms to moody music. Mike Tutaj’s projections add a movie-screen-size ghost of the dead King Hamlet, though this certainly removes any ambiguity about what the sentries, Horatio, and Hamlet are seeing in the early scenes.
The aura of isolation that surrounds Hamlet (Maurice Jones) at the start stays with him throughout the nearly three-hour-long evening. He’s an understandably sullen nonparticipant in the wedding celebration of his mother Gertrude (Karen Aldridge) and her new husband, his father’s brother Claudius (Tim Decker). He makes his contempt for Prime Minister Polonius (Larry Yando) clearly known. His superficially warm greeting for his old school chums Rosencrantz (Alex Goodrich) and Guildenstern (Samuel Taylor) quickly gives way to suspicion, and he’s even restrained with his good friend Horatio (Sean Allan Krill).
Even making allowances for his rage over his father’s murder, Jones’ Hamlet is not someone you’d want to know. His treatment of women is especially distressing. The big scene with Ophelia (Rachel Nicks) can be played many ways, and here his cruelty to the innocent young woman he supposedly loved becomes physical abuse unmitigated by any gentleness. He may be feigning madness, but there’s no excuse for this behavior. The same is true for the extent of his harsh treatment of Gertrude right before and after he kills Polonius. Even after she breaks down and his father’s ghost—which Gertrude cannot see—rebukes him, Hamlet remains relentless.
The other characters also come across as isolated from each other. As Decker’s smug, entitled Claudius begins to have doubts about how secure he is on the throne, he and Aldridge’s rather self-contained Gertrude become less physically affectionate. Polonius’ penchant for pontification prompts Laertes (Paul Deo, Jr.) and even the dutiful Ophelia to mock him as he delivers his famous precepts to his departing son and orders his daughter to reject Hamlet.
This bit of whimsy—the kids mimic dad behind his back, having heard the same speech many times before—is one of several injections of humor Gaines uses to relieve the impending tragedy, if not exactly lighten the mood. Many of these moments involve Polonius, giving Yando a chance to show off his impeccable comic timing.
Other Chicago actors familiar to Chicago Shakespeare audiences also shine in minor roles. Kevin Gudahl plays several, capping the evening as a less-foppish-than-usual Osric. Greg Vinkler’s Player King looks like a bulky middle-aged biker in this black leather jacket and leads a troupe of traveling performers who resemble a motorcycle gang. Vinkler doubles as one of the Gravediggers, joined by the incomparable Mike Nussbaum in a quietly funny scene that finishes with the kindest little twist.
While Gaines focuses on the personal side of the story at the expense of political context—sections about the conflict with Norway are trimmed and the final entrance of Fortinbras is cut—the drawback is that the main characters aren’t sympathetic. We should care about Hamlet’s torment, both existential and practical, but I found him too unpleasant. Nicks’ Ophelia should at least arouse our pity, and almost does in her last scene, but mostly is too passive. Deo’s Laertes is dealt a lousy hand, but then again, he willingly participates in Claudius’ underhanded scheme. Aldridge’s Gertrude might warrant more of a response if only she didn’t seem so remote. In a way, Krill’s bookish-looking, matter-of-fact Horatio is a stand-in for the audience, which arguably makes him the most understandable.
I’ve seen “Hamlet” many times, and Chicago Shakespeare’s is neither the best nor the worst. The whole may not be more than the sum of its parts, but some of the parts are captivating compared to the whole.