The best review I can offer of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new production of Hamlet, which opened the summer season last night on the Elizabethan Stage in Ashland, is this: It rained and rained and rained, and it was cold, and I didn’t see anyone get up and leave before the entire three-hour outdoor show was over.
It was that good.
Billed, a little hopefully, as a “ghost story,” which of course Hamlet always is, the production, directed by Lisa Peterson, is a fairly conventional telling of the tragedy, with a bit of a loud metal sound track laid over the script, a few broad stage effects, and a very fine lead performance.
The ghost scenes, involving the dead king, might work better later in the season, when they’ll be played out in the dark, where ghosts belong.
In the tale, young Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, encounters the ghost of his recently dead father, who tells him that his death, far from natural, was murder – by his uncle, Claudius, who has already assumed the throne and married the queen.
Welcome to the original dysfunctional aristocratic family.
Under the pressure of his youthful indecision – Avenge his father’s death? Or not? (And we all know the speech this leads into) – Hamlet descends into strange madness.
It is this madness in Hamlet, as portrayed by OSF veteran Danforth Comins, that pulls the play right along, much more so than the visual effects or the dark post-metal music, as good as it is.
Comins’ Hamlet, so young and so vulnerable as the play opens, only gradually spins off the rails of sanity, becoming just slightly flakier with each appearance until that emotionally gruesome scene where he so alienates his girlfriend, the fragile Ophelia, with his offensive humor that she soon drowns herself.
Guitarist Scott Kelly, founder of the Oakland metal band Neurosis, provides the brooding soundtrack from a prominent nest in the theater facade just above the action. (He also steps into the play itself as a gravedigger in the Yorick scene.) His guitar work, rough and often shapeless, provides a sonic window into Hamlet’s state of mind.
Michael Elich and Robin Goodrin Nordli make a fine, chilling couple as Claudius, the fratricidal new king, and Gertrude, the disloyal queen. Their mutual understatement of their roles emphasizes the basic, quiet evil – the thing that is rotten in this state of Denmark – that drives the play to its bloody conclusion.
Derrick Lee Weeden is a wonderfully pompous Polonius, spouting aphorisms by the bushel until his accidental killing by Hamlet.
Jennie Greenberry is a refreshingly different Ophelia. The role is so often played as a wispy, almost whiny character, making you wonder exactly what it is that Hamlet sees in her. Greenberry plays her with solid verve, a woman worthy of a prince.
The overall look of the play – simple set by Laura Jellinek, generic monochrome costumes by David C. Woolard– is spare to the point that it whispers budget cuts rather than artistic vision. The lighting, by Japhy Weideman, is interesting, relying a lot on follow spots, which occasionally pop the show into a vaudeville dimension, sometimes heightened by Comins’ use of a floor microphone as though he’s become a slightly cheesy cruise ship entertainer.
The best of those microphone moments comes in the famous soliloquy. Rather than say the words himself, Hamlet handed off the mic to a woman in the front row of the audience. “To be or not to be!” she said, and the audience roared.
I’ve seen Hamlet a bunch of times. This production, post-metal music, too much fog, ghosts and all, did the best job I can recall of laying out the entire, slow-burn tragedy in its steady and inevitable sadness.