To be or not to be unconventional or even probing — that is often the question when directors look to mount Shakespeare’s popular play “Hamlet.”
With “Hamlet,” which StageOne Family Theatre opened Friday with Kentucky Shakespeare, actors sport contemporary fashions and speak the Bard’s authentic text. Directed by Kentucky Shakespeare Producing Artistic Director Matt Wallace, this “Hamlet” is not laden with context, like many of this company’s shows.
Some directors interpret social and political trends through Shakespeare’s work, like one did in New York Public Theater’s production “Julius Caesar” in Central Park last summer, where Caesar was styled as Donald Trump. Kentucky Shakespeare’s production last summer eschewed doing that kind of thing.
Save for the contemporary costumes, the company primarily takes a conventional approach in staging this “Hamlet” aimed at the fifth to 12th grade crowds. This “Hamlet” clocks in around 90 minutes. The first and some other scenes feel rushed.
This, however, doesn’t happen in the scenes with Crystian Wiltshire in the title role of one of the most famous characters in literature. Wiltshire’s spry and smart Hamlet is a man in his teens or early 20s and one with charisma. The rub: he lives on an emotional edge of anxiety over the murder of his father and his mother’s marriage to his uncle has him with one foot in grief and another searching for justice.
Somehow, the grief seems to slip off of this Hamlet when he gives his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Wiltshire constrains much of the emotion and is even devoid of suspicion if he is even aware that Claudius and Polonius are nearby and spying on him. This moment when this prince of Denmark contemplates suicide and injustice comes off much like a memorized speech rather than a serious moment of reflection. For this production’s contemporary approach, this moment seems like a missed opportunity given an increase in suicide deaths among teens from 2010 to 2015.
But grief visibly settles on and spills out of Ophelia (Alisha Espinosa) after Hamlet unwittingly kills her father, Polonius (J. Barrett Cooper). That’s not always the case. Early on, Espinosa, too, carries a youthful vitality that carries her when Hamlet breaks up with her and allows her to gather her pride. When she loses her father, however, the weight becomes too much for her. Espinosa’s portrayal of Ophelia’s moving demise marks a highlight.
But all is not gloomy in Wallace’s Denmark. Wallace has worked with the actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – Brandon Meeks and Jon O’Brien respectively – to echo the Kentucky Shakespeare’s remarkable production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Tom Stoppard from January 2017 with Brian Hinds as Rosencrantz and Gregory Maupin as Guildenstern.
The result is an absolute hoot with Meeks and O’Brien as the befuddling duo. They often match the chemistry and some of the physical comedy that Hinds and Maupin gave in 2017. O’Brien even expertly mimics some of Maupin’s hilarious facial expressions. An added treat is that Meeks often resembles the English actor Bill Nighy in appearance and movement.
The costumes by Allison Anderson help drive the duet’s hilarity further — especially with Rosencrantz (Meeks) wearing a glorious plaid suit, enhancing Meeks’ physical resemblance to Nighy.
Jon Huffman and Cooper help make the production feel seamless. Cooper as Polonius and as in his brief appearance as the gravedigger artfully encompasses characters so carefully and singularly seasoned. As often with this company, Jon Huffman’s performance – here was Claudius – provides this production a solid footing.
Performances of “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare presented by StageOne with Kentucky Shakespeare run through Feb. 3, with school field trip performances through Feb. 9. More information can be found here.