Play Unlimited: The Public’s Ambitious “Hamlet” Rewards on Many Levels

Photo by Michael Henninger A scene from Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of "Hamlet." A scene from Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of “Hamlet.“
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The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is a monster of a play: at about 4,000 lines, it’s Shakespeare’s longest — full productions can easily run past four hours. (Hamlet himself has 1,500 lines, which alone would constitute an entire drama). And it’s monstrous not only in word-​count, but body-​count. By the end, the prince has been directly or indirectly responsible for eight deaths, including his own.

The play is so unique, it seems to have its own mind, and its own idea of what a play should be. “Hamlet’s” form is stunningly innovative, the action radically experimental, and the language sublime. It is a drama that lacks all definition, yet 400 years after it was written, it continues to define us. In staging this work, the iconoclastic critic Harold Bloom admonishes, “What is wanted is a director and actor who are monsters of consciousness.”

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s new production is a brisk-​paced, polished show that picks you up like a bullet train and takes you through more territory in the space of an evening than you imagine could be covered. It’s a taut three hours that director Ted Pappas has judiciously culled from Shakespeare’s text, and in the way he has imbued the staging with lighting and sound, you feel like you are actually watching a movie which is being filmed in front of you. This is a daring conceit. Sometimes it works to great effect, but sometimes the effects feel conceited.

One can’t say much about “Hamlet” without addressing Hamlet the character, and how he is interpreted. One of the gifts of Shakespeare is that, on paper, the reader gets to interpret his characters, but on stage, each character is the actor’s creation to such a remarkable degree, because the lines said are often so familiar — or so much a part of our subconsciousness — that to hear them come from another living entity is like hearing foreign thoughts in our own heads. Perhaps this is what Emerson meant when he said, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Matthew Amendt in the title role is many things, just as Hamlet is many things, and this is the key to the brilliance of his performance. He is able to deliver well-​known lines such as, “So excellent a king, that was to this Hyperion to a satyr,” as if he is gently giving birth to them for the first time. And then, a few lines later, elicit laughter with the hammy “Than I to Hercules” comparison. The latter is a joke that wouldn’t work with an older-​looking, athletic-​bodied actor (e.g. the 40-​something Laurence Oliver in the 1948 film version), thus it’s to Amendt’s credit that he knows where and when to mine his character’s pathos, and humor. Also, his “antic” scenes are refreshing and, as we are living in a post-​Jim Carrey world, it should not be a surprise that there is a little of this comic’s influence in his antics.

In an effort to speed the play, Director Pappas explores the tradeoffs between editing vs. velocity, as if he doesn’t want to indulge too much in either evil. This has always been a matter of great debate and sensitivity with many of Shakespeare’s works. But where Amendt gets free reign with Hamlet’s soliloquies, many patches of multiple-​character dialogue come out in “fast-​forward” mode, like when a band plays a song much quicker on stage than when it was recorded. It’s as if Pappas wants the information to be delivered (no, he’s not going to cut out plot points), but quickly so. There were times when I wanted to reach for a remote control just to slow this clipped pacing down. One might argue, it’s better to accelerate the action than cut the lines, but that’s like trying to jazz-​up Bach: you may hear more notes, but none of them can blossom.

One minor cut that has major implications occurs in the wonderfully absurd and pregnant speech when Polonius (adroitly portrayed by Matt Sullivan), is about to announce the players who will act out the play-​within-​the-​play. In his attempt to list all of the forms of drama, Shakespeare buries something fantastic at the end:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-​comical, historical–
pastoral, tragical-​historical, tragical-​comical-​historical–
pastoral; scene indivisible, or poem unlimited.

Hidden in plain sight at the culmination of this inventory is the phrase, “poem unlimited” which, if you had to sum up what “Hamlet” is with only two words, would be the mot juste. Only an infinite term can encompass an infinite play — which is really an infinite poem — and Shakespeare somehow knew, as we do now, that nothing like it had ever been written, or probably ever would be.

Unfortunately, these two words (and the two prior) were elided from the script, allowing the speech to be, yes, funny, but denying the audience the extreme irony, and sublime self-​definition, that Shakespeare had clearly intended. By cutting these words you save a few seconds, but lose an eternity.

Regarding casting, this is that rare kind of show in which the company is uniformly strong. Perhaps the most invigorating interpretation is David Whalen’s Claudius, who does not come off as the lumbering, oafish King as is traditionally portrayed, but with more gravity and deeper power, and who is of some threat to the cerebral Hamlet. In fact, Hamlet seems slightly afraid of him after his murder of Polonius, and actually moves out of his way when their paths cross.

Gertrude, his wife, is coolly performed by Caris Vujcec, who projects a posh sexiness and speaks with chiseled diction. Together, as the King and Queen, they embody a power couple in a corporate marriage, rather than the conventional depiction of lusty royals who conspired to murder her prior husband so they could hop in the sack. And with delicious irony, they exhibit the same kind of sexual chemistry as Donald and Melania Trump.

Tony Bingham is scintillating as the Gravedigger, the only other character in the play who can match Hamlet in a game of wits. One wishes that the playwright had written more lines for this part, and that this actor could be on the stage longer.

Jenny Leona’s Ophelia glides across the set with a doomed effulgence, like someone practicing the part of a ghost in life. Her speech comes out more sung than spoken, which is neither good or bad, but has the effect of smoothing over some of Shakespeare’s more intricate metrical patterns.

The entire show has a crepuscular, almost macabre feel, as if Edward Gorey was the dramaturg. Set in 1907, Gabriel Berry’s costumes evoke an Edwardian fustiness that is absolutely appropriate to a monarchial dynasty such as the Court of Elsinore.

James Noone’s scenic design is minimalist, open, and effective, which actually honors the Elizabethan stage as it was when Hamlet was originally performed. It looks and feels like Samuel Beckett having a medieval dream.

Kirk Bookman’s lighting compliments all of this masterfully. His illumination of the Ghost (Darren Eliker) is spectral, never corny. But the production sometimes overindulges in these technical effects, like a kid playing with a flashlight in his tent who just won’t turn it off. For example, at the opening of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy — probably the most famous verse passage in the English language — the house lights are jacked up with the crude florescence of last call in a dive bar. It’s a gratuitous device, as if we are being hit over the head to pay attention.

The music, too, which is salubrious in its supporting role, is sometimes pumped into emotional gaps like putty, when the audience might want to breathe, exhale, reflect, or applaud. This kind of intrusiveness is usually a cinematic flaw. I can’t fault sound designer Zach Moore, as his original music is excellent, but I will question the choice to employ that music so melodramatically, such as in the scene where Claudius is praying while Hamlet is contemplating his murder. It pushes one of the most meditative moments in literary drama towards soap opera.

These concerns with the technical aspects of the production may sound like show stoppers, but they’re really only minor distractions in relation to the dynamic acting, blocking, and staging presented to us. Does “Hamlet,” or any work of Shakespeare’s for that matter, really need modern technical embellishment? The stage of the Globe Theatre, where such plays were conceived, was essentially bare. And furthermore, do we need these elements introduced in such an exogenous, rather than organic, manner?

One might argue, yes, that they are a classic Brechtian alienation device, a very necessary bop on the audience’s head to remind it that these are not the same old “Hamlet” speeches you have memorized since grade school. Or that this play should not be the theatre’s version of “Stairway to Heaven,” which we hear so often that we have become numb to the aesthetics which made it so remarkable when it was first released.

But one might also argue, aren’t such devices — didactic by their very nature — really distractions from what the audience’s work should be? Hasn’t this sort of alienation become a tautology, and ultimately a symptom of the malady it wants to correct — what renowned director Peter Brook called “The Deadly Theater?”

A critic should not try to answer such questions, as much as present them. “Hamlet,” just like all of Shakespeare’s plays, or Beckett’s, or any playwright’s, needs to be reborn with each generation, and even more so, with each performance. Reinvention is itself a virtue. We never really forget a viewing of “Hamlet,” and we shall remember this production for a long time to come.

Hamlet continues through May 20th, O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Downtown. $3065. 4123161600 or www​.ppt​.org.

Stuart Sheppard

Stuart Sheppard is a novelist, critic, and management consultant. Follow him: @HamletsMachine

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