Monday, October 27, 2014

Theater Review: Hamlet -- Hartford Stage

Cliff Miller, Zach Appelman and James Seol. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Though this be madness, 
yet there is method in't." (Act II, Scene 2)

Darko Creates a Youthful, Emotional Chess Match for Hamlet
By Lauren Yarger
From the opening gambit to the sacrifice of the queen, Darko Tresnjak’s Hamlet at Hartford Stage is an emotional, gripping chess match between two kings.

On one side of the board is Hamlet (a gripping and energetic Zach Appelman), Prince of Denmark, who returns from university to discover his father dead and his mother, Gertrude (Kate Forbes), quickly remarried to his uncle, now King Claudius (Andrew Long). There is something rotten in Denmark, however, and the ghost of the late king begs son Hamlet to avenge his murder at his brother’s hand.

Visualizing the chess match about to take place for power and the throne, Tresnjak, who designs the set as well as directs, places the action on a black-and-white checkered platform in the shape of a cross. All it takes is for a chandelier to drop or a curtain to be angled and the set transforms to various locations.

All of the players are positioned. On Hamlet’s side are his best friend, Horatio (James Seol), and a group of theatrical players (led by Floyd King) who Hamlet has re-enact Claudius’ crimes to unnerve the king.

Moving for Claudius are his counselor, Polonius (a very funny Edward James Hyland), and his son, Laertes (Anthony Roach). Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia (Brittany Vicars) is the pawn, bending to her father’s instructions to reject Hamlet’s romantic advances. Also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Curtis Billings and Cliff Miller), friends of Hamlet’s from the university, are manipulated around the board by Claudius as spies.

Tresnjak also focuses on the religious themes in Shakespeare’s play, having the cross (expertly lighted by Matthew Richards) change with a stained glass window effect, into the church where he contemplates a checkmate move against Claudius.

Shakespeare’s tragedy of revenge is the first show artistic director has helmed since winning the Tony Award last season for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, still running on Broadway where it transferred following its premiere at Hartford Stage. In casting TV star Appelman (“Sleepy Hollow,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Homeland”), Tresnjak infuses the Elizabethan-era tragedy with modern youthfulness. Appelman is energetic and complex, often transforming his soliloquies into laid-back chat sessions with the audience. We get his disgust at Gertrude’s haste to marry Claudius. Forbes’s strong performance gives insight into a mother dealing with an increasingly irrational son.

A couple of things don’t quite fit, though: Shakespeare’s lines don’t come easily off Vicars’ tongue and she overdoes the dramatics; also overdone are comedic line delivery and props in the grave-digging scene.

Tresnjak captures our attention, however, as we watch maneuvers to trap the king and set up the kill. The final scene is unique, at least in my experiences of productions of Hamlet, and satisfyingly illuminating.

Hamlet plays at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford, through Nov. 16. Performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday at 8 pm;  Saturday, Sunday at 2 pm. Wednesday matinee at 2 pm on Oct. 29 only. Weekly schedules can vary. Tickets:860- 527-7838; www.

Special program: a free lecture from artists and scholars connected with the production will following the 2 pm matinee Sunday, Oct. 21. 

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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