Hamlet, Shakespeare Theatre Center

A brightly lit marquee takes center stage at Sidney Harman Hall before the evening's play begins, with HAMLET in bold, tall letters.  There's no use pretending we don't all know what we're here to see, it proclaims. Hamlet is here, with its melancholy Danes, machinations, and murders.  It's a surprise, however, when the play begins with Michael Urie's Hamlet bursting onstage and launching into his first soliloquy ("O, that this too too solid flesh would melt"). Instead of functioning as a long-anticipated look into the mind of the prince around whom so much action has already taken place, Michael Kahn's production turns the familiar soliloquy into what serves as a Previously in Elsinore... segment and makes us take the measure of Urie's Hamlet immediately.

Photo of Avery Glymph, Michael Urie, and Frederico Rodriguez by Scott Suchman.

Urie's Hamlet is naturally the centerpiece of the production, and we soon realize that his prince is one burning with energy and emotion that he has no idea how to channel.  He's a young man mourning his father but being told that the time for mourning is over; he chafes against confines that are growing ever more tight; he's a man desperate to reconcile a million conflicting impulses even before he learns that there is a ghost of his father wandering the ramparts bearing news that will alter the course of his life.  He's twitchy, eager to slouch on the sidelines, wrapped in a cardigan and constantly deciding who he can trust, and with how much truth.  

What surrounds Urie's Hamlet is Elsinore as an ever-expanding totalitarian nightmare. Security guards in tasteful grey suits in Act I become uniformed military by the end of the first half of the evening, arm-bands begin to proliferate, and no one should be surprised that Claudius (Alan Cox) has a torture chair handy to threaten his nephew-son with.  Security cameras are mounted across stark sets by John Coyne, alongside panels designed perfectly to conceal unseen observers.  The program notes include a quote from Kahn: "There's something about Denmark that makes young people not want to stick around," and this version gives us little reason to doubt it.  

But indulge me for a moment, and let's go back to Hamlet's cardigan.  While Urie also wears the obligatory modern-dress-Hamlet black hoodie, the cardigan has pockets that somehow reveal far more about his Hamlet than any pockets of my acquaintance, thanks to how Jess Goldstein's costume designs serve Kahn's Hamlet.  His Prince spends much of the first half of the evening with his hands buried in the sweater's pockets, but it's only when he has a moment alone and begins "To be or not to be" that we realize he has been clutching a stolen handgun all this while. Urie doesn't relinquish the gun, and every time he stuffs his hands back into his pockets, we know it's there. Somehow, those pockets and what is inside them carry the weight of Hamlet's burden, one that comforts him even as he can neither put it down nor use it to his professed end when given the opportunity. His antic disposition becomes his only other outlet, giving him a modicum of freedom in Denmark and bolstering him with assumed bravado when he needs it most under the King's eye.

Photo of Ryan Spahn, Kelsey Rainwater, and Michael Urie by Scott Suchman.

When Michael Kahn directs Hamlet, we know that he will do so with expertise, and indeed, there are moments during this Hamlet when the play resonates in perfect harmony and assurance.  The strongest, most unexpected thread of the production is that of the journey of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Ryan Spahn and Kelsey Rainwater.  They enter like a breath of fresh air, and as they do, Urie's Hamlet is able to drop his act and interact with two people heretofore entirely separate from the toxicity of Denmark that has taken away his father and tainted his mother and even Ophelia. As time goes on, however, they become increasingly entrenched in the King's world, such that we can't help but feel their eventual offstage fate feels like the finale of their own tragic arc.

It's a shame that the production as a whole doesn't live up to these small, perfect movements of a gun carried like an unseen albatross and a friendship that cannot survive inside the dangerous, ever-watching walls of Elsinore. Much of the rest of the evening feels like going through familiar story beats than being startled by new truths that were always there for us in the play.  Nevertheless, Hamlet remains Hamlet, and even the least of Kahn's productions of Shakespeare are worth seeing, much less when it's one of the greatest plays ever written.


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