Theater review by Frank C. Siraguso
Directed by Mark Robbins with a great cast, the Kansas City Actors Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is timeless yet modern, dark with foreboding undercurrents of mayhem and danger.
(Hamlet is playing in rotating repertory with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, based on two characters in Hamlet, directed by Richard Esvang.)
Murder most foul
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about actions and their unintended consequences. Prince Hamlet (an extremely agitated Jake Walker) is grieving for his late father, King Hamlet, who died unexpectedly. Hamlet then sees the ghost of his father, who tells him he was murdered, poisoned by Claudius (an edgy Scott Cordes). The ghost exhorts Hamlet to avenge the murder.
The young prince is furious that, less than two months after the king’s death his queen – Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (the estimable Cinnamon Schultz) – has married the dead king’s brother, Claudius, now the new king, in what Prince Hamlet sees as an incestuous, immoral act. Gertrude seems blissfully unaware she has married her late husband’s murderer. If she does know, she keeps it hidden. Considering the life she faced as a widow and ex-queen, maybe she’s relieved to be married to her brother in law.
Hamlet, knowing now that the king was murdered, plans his revenge. He flies into a seething rage, which leads to erratic behavior throughout the play. Claudius, Gertrude and his friends think he’s crazy with grief, but will soon learn otherwise.
Past and present
If anyone was born to direct Hamlet, it’s Mark Robbins. He’s acted in tons of Shakespeare plays but has such a range of experience, from comedy to the absurd (like Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) that he’s effortlessly able to adapt the genre.
Visually, Robbins’ Hamlet encompasses styles from vintage Shakespeare to the current era. The play opens with Horatio (honorably played by Kyle Dyck) dressed in jeans, sneakers and a camel hair overcoat, sporting a digital camera. He speaks to guards wearing medieval gear and swords, who will face Norwegians dressed in vaguely Eastern-Bloc black carrying German MP 38 machine pistols (WWII Schmeissers). During the bedroom argument between Hamlet and Gertrude, a snub-nosed revolver appears, and is fired with deleterious effect to Polonius (the excellent Walter Coppage). Claudius is a brown-shirted commissar with a chest full of medals and a Sam Browne belt, while Queen Gertrude wears a brown, angular ensemble out of a 1980s wearable art fashion show, and the unctuous Polonius wears a business suit with a slightly long coat draped with a sleeveless silk robe.
It all fits, it all makes sense, even when Horatio takes photos of the Tragedians (a group of actors performing for Claudius and Gertrude) and shows them the results on the camera’s screen. It works because this stylistic mélange stays true to Shakespeare’s language, allowing the audience to bridge the past and present.
There’s the rub
What truly drives Hamlet crazy is the realization that revenge is useless. No matter what he or anyone does, murder cannot be undone. The only way to truly avenge his father’s murder is to kill Claudius. And that won’t bring his father back. It’s impossible for Hamlet to accept this and live with it. “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
With increasingly intractable strife in places like the Middle East, the Ukraine, and Ferguson, Missouri, we still don’t know the answer.