Kentucky Shakespeare’s Jon Patrick O’Brien Anchors Strong, Traditional ‘Hamlet’

How well we know “Hamlet,” one of Shakespeare’s most adaptable plays. The tragedy of a young man consumed with revenge for his father’s death is constantly quoted and referenced, gently parodied and violently re-imagined, its best quotes pinballing through art and pop culture. But Kentucky Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” side-steps the temptation to transform, staging a fairly traditional production anchored by Jon Patrick O’Brien’s powerful performance as the young prince.

Directed by producing artistic director Matt Wallace, “Hamlet” opened last weekend in the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre in Old Louisville’s Central Park, and now runs in repertory with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Henry V” through July 27.

Wallace has trimmed down the political intrigue in Shakespeare’s script to focus on the domestic drama that plagues Denmark when Hamlet’s father (Dathan Hooper as the ghostly apparition), the king, dies, and his wife Gertrude (a regal Abigail Bailey Maupin) marries the king’s brother Claudius (Jon Huffman, back from an illness in fine form), who then becomes king himself. So the lens of the play is firmly on Hamlet and his reaction to these horrifying developments, and nothing distracts from O’Brien’s performance.

If O’Brien is new to you, you haven’t been frequenting Savage Rose Classical Theatre’s productions for the last year or so, where he’s shined in roles large and smaller. But this play’s the thing for O’Brien, a perfect vehicle for his considerable talents.

O’Brien’s Hamlet is intensely intellectual and believably impulsive, and there is a wild panic in his grief that validates the young prince’s erratic behavior as it revs up throughout the show, making him sympathetic to the point that when Hamlet stabs Polonius (Gregory Maupin, who finds all of the humor in the advisor’s verbal gymnastics) in the gut and leaves him to die rolled up in a tapestry, my first reaction is “oh, this is bad for Hamlet.” His best friend Horatio (Tony Milder) – let alone the dopey school chums Rosencrantz (Maggie Lou Rader) and Guildenstern (Kyle Ware) his parents have enlisted to wrangle him – can barely keep up.

This is a larger version of the tight production designed to tour parks all over Jefferson County earlier in the spring, playing in any and every kind of stage and surface. Maybe that’s why Paul Owen’s expanded amphitheatre stage feels a little airy for the dark oppression of this particular household, though Casey Clark’s subtly atmospheric lighting helps in that regard. Gertrude’s sleep chamber, staged on the second level, dead-center, does provide a nice tight frame for Bailey Maupin’s moment of horror and truth when Hamlet confronts her.

That’s a large moment in the play, because up to then Bailey Maupin exudes motherly concern and queenly dignity, but reveals little. Similarly, Huffman plays Claudius regally straight-forward as scripted until the faux play Hamlet orchestrates goads him into sinister action. Is she truly an innocent, duped by her new husband? Had Claudius planned to murder Hamlet, too, all along? The actors know what their characters know, and stronger nonverbal language, which is fairly muted in the first half, could help ground us in Gertrude’s and Claudius’ intentions. 

Wallace’s staging pulls an odd punch by downplaying what could be a vicious fist-fight between Laertes (a fiery Zachary Burrell) and Hamlet inside Ophelia’s grave. And poor Ophelia – love of Hamlet, daughter of Polonius, sister to Laertes, archetypal lost girl. Megan Massie turns in an admirable performance, but Ophelia is such a bizarre character, and every time I see her portrayed on stage, I hope for some daring interpretation of the script that will make sense of her arc – it’s such a whiplash from average teen to madwoman to suicide, and in such a short amount of time.

Overall, Wallace’s show has room for risks it didn’t take, but the record-breaking audiences crowding Central Park to cheer on the re-vamped company aren’t sweating it. “Hamlet” has its hero in O’Brien, its powerful villain in Huffman, and its soulful mirror in Burrell’s Laertes, whose descent into grief and bad decisions mirrors Hamlet’s own, and its beating heart in Milder’s Horatio, who’s left holding the bodies in the bloody end. Anything else is added texture, and this satisfying production stands on its own.

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