Four hundred-plus years after its debut, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” still has a lot to teach us about avarice, ambition, betrayal, and revenge. Based on stories and legends reaching far back into the dim recesses of time—the Wikipedia entry is an excellent resource—“Hamlet” is among Shakespeare’s most enduring and popular tragedies.
In it, a brooding young prince comes home from college to discover that his father has been murdered by his uncle Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and usurped the throne. Wracked with self-doubt, Hamlet plots revenge while the guilt-ridden Claudius conspires to send him away, perhaps permanently. The outcome isn’t pretty.
Directed by Robert Currier, Marin Shakespeare Company’s modern-dress outdoor production intentionally leverages the palace intrigue and manipulation of fact that occupy so much of our daily news coverage. The stark set by Jackson Currier evokes the bombed-out remains of Baghdad or Aleppo, while newly-crowned King Claudius (Rod Gnapp) resembles Vladimir Putin, with an entourage that includes his verbose, obsequious, and ever-present minister Polonius (Steve Price, excellent), Polonius’s son and daughter Laertes and Ophelia (Hunter Scott MacNair and Talia Friedenberg, respectively) and Queen Gertrude (Arwen Anderson), a glamour-puss with little to say but, as prominent arm candy, much to contribute to Claudius’s attempts to legitimize himself. The guards at Castle Elsinore carry automatic weapons, not spears; Hamlet dispatches the spying Polonius with a silencer-equipped pistol, not a dagger.
As the tormented prince, Nate Currier brings a pronounced sense of the contemporaneous to his role without pandering to the present. He’s also the right age for the part, one sometimes attempted by middle-aged actors in a thirst to tackle one of the greatest characters ever written—a not-uncommon theatrical trope as absurd as having Madame Butterfly sung by a heavyweight matron. Arwen Anderson doesn’t look old enough to be completely believable as Hamlet’s mother—his super-model stepmom, maybe, but Gertrude may have been a child bride.
Barry Kraft is superb in multiple roles—as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, as the “First Player” of the theatrical troupe that Hamlet hires for a court performance—and he absolutely shines as the gravedigger, the show’s one bit of comic relief before the final bloodbath. It’s one of the juiciest cameos in all of Shakespeare.
Talia Friedenberg lends strong vocal talent and a refreshing lack of inhibition to the part of whacked-out Ophelia, while MacNair gives Laertes a resounding sense of decency in a cesspool of backstabbing. Brennan Pickman-Thoon is rock-solid as Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio.
Looking over “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Richard II,” and the Bard’s other plays depicting madness and criminality among the nobility, one might conclude that Shakespeare didn’t have much respect for the ruling class. Human nature will never change. “Hamlet” goes a long way in showing us how if not exactly why. This production runs just about three hours with intermission. The outdoor setting can be chilly at night, while afternoons can be sweltering. Come prepared.
ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.
“Hamlet” by Marin Shakespeare Company
Through July 8: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees 4 p.m.
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University, San Rafael, CA
Tickets: $10 – $38 Info: 415-499-4488, www.marinshakespeare.org
Rating: Four out of Five Stars
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