Whatever you do, whatever you see this season, do not miss Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Hamlet."
Director Bill Rauch and Dan Donohue have dragged Shakespeare's venerated classic into the world of 2010 and given us an edgy, topical and intimate examination of those dastardly doings in Denmark.
Donohue's Hamlet is never static. A charming actor but also graceful and skillfully acrobatic, Donohue glides, leaps, paces, and you simply cannot take your eyes off of him. It is not a criticism of the production that the action stalls and goes a bit flaccid during those rare scenes when Hamlet is offstage.
A full half-hour before the curtain rises, the audience sees Hamlet sitting alone in a chapel, contemplating his father's casket. The king's brother, Claudius (Jeffrey King) has assumed the throne and married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Greta Oglesby). When a ghostly apparition of the dead king (Howie Seago) starts appearing on the battlements, Hamlet approaches him and learns that his father was murdered. The prince vows to pretend to go insane in order to coax a confession from his uncle and to be able to pick the right time for vengeance.
In the course of his quest, the queen, the king's courtier Polonius (Richard Elmore), his son Laertes (David DeSantos) and his daughter Ophelia (Susannah Flood) become unwitting participants and, ultimately, victims as well. Only Hamlet's friend and confidante, Horatio (Armando Duran) manages to emerge unscathed.
It is Rauch's vision to put Hamlet into current time and place. Costumes and sets are as contemporary as the characterizations. Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes and even Rosencrantz (Vilma Silva) and Guildenstern (Jeany Park) have been plucked out of an urban college environment. You can imagine Laertes texting Ophelia or Hamlet capturing his father's ghost on his iPhone.
Rauch's Denmark is a full-blown security state. Even the ancient castle walls come equipped with security cameras, guards with assault rifles. Claudius and Polonius don't have to eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia — she wears a wire. In this milieu, Hamlet's irrational acts and speech throw everyone off balance, making them that much more vulnerable.
Ophelia in this production is a stronger and less manipulated character than usually seen; Susannah Flood has too much spunk for that. Her mad scene is a masterpiece of anger, thwarted sexuality and despair.
Elmore is the perfect verbose and hapless Polonius and DeSantos works the best he can with the impulsive Laertes, all action and very little thought. Duran makes Horatio's fervent, unquestioning steadfastness interesting. Oglesby is equally strong as Gertrude.
Shakespeare wrote Claudius in the tradition of Iago or Brutus (though without giving him equally good lines). Jeffrey King presents a convincingly oily Claudius, an unrepentant scoundrel as he mouths political platitudes and requisite humility.
Donohue's Hamlet is fully engaged not only with the action on stage but also with the audience. Here, Hamlet's soliloquies are not tortured, self-examining debates on action/inaction, good/evil, life/death in the character's head but conversations with the audience members — who are his contemporaries — about the choices in all their lives.
Rauch clearly wanted to take one of those "oh, no, not Shakespeare" chestnuts and serve it up to younger audiences as a treat, something to be gleefully enjoyed because everything about the play hits a nerve. Rauch's centerpiece is to have the troupe of traveling players who perform the crucial play-within-a-play as a hip-hop group (Ramiz Monsef, Khatt Taylor and Orion Bradshaw), strutting their lines to a ragged beat and bravado choreography, including a DJ doing the mix at a laptop over to the side. And they don't change a word of text — it all fits, it all works.
Of course, if you want to quibble, you might wonder how a hip-hop troupe could be booked at this particular palace, even if it just dropped in and was the only entertainment in town. King Claudius hardly seems a type likely to go for non-traditional programming. But, hey, the conceit does work and it absolutely electrifies the audience.
And the language — oh, the language. This production is a superb example of why so many lines, so many phrases from this play have made it into English vernacular not to mention titles of other literary works. Donohue leads the way, of course, but every single actor here — even Seago as the Ghost, who uses American Sign Language — takes Shakespeare's words and makes them relevant, personal and beautifully eloquent.
Scenic designer Christopher Acebo created a many-doored ancient castle façade as the set, filled with Danish modern furniture. Deborah M. Dryden's costumes are wonderfully character specific. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, composer Paul James Prendergast, choreographer Rokafella and fight director U. Jonathan Toppo all need special mention, as does the projections designer William Cusick.
This production of "Hamlet" is truly a masterpiece. One wishes it could travel around the country; it would certainly bring a burst of fresh air to the theater scene in Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles. It would electrify Broadway. We are incredibly fortunate to have it in Ashland for the length of OSF's 75th season.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.