Hamlet Done Well: The Broody Dane Contemplates Revenge at Miller Outdoor Theatre

Check out our interview with Cindy Pickett and Mark Metcalf as they rehearsed for Hamlet.

The setup: Watching the Houston Shakespeare Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre is, somewhat, the closest we'll ever get to what it must have been like for those Londoners of yore when they went to the Globe to watch the immortal Bard in his own theater.

Although the entrance fee for Miller is free, unlike Shakespeare's "wooden O," there's much similarity. Patrons amble about, crossing in front of the stage no matter what scene is in progress; the smells of fried food and sweaty neighbors waft over us; far off noises, modern annoyances like helicopters and car sirens, or, closer, the whines of children, drown out the action at certain points; and while we're all sitting, unlike the Globe's groundling audience which stood throughout (unless you bought a seat and cushion in the upper rings), we feel close to the stage and very much part of the action.

Shakespeare comes alive in an outdoor setting, this is the venue he wrote for -- his plays had to compete with all sorts of distractions and quickly catch the attention of the audience. As soon as Hamlet begins, the audience at Miller quiets; I'm sure, just like they would have at the Globe. The magic that is Hamlet casts a spell.

The execution: Director Steve Pickering sets this production in Edwardian Denmark, with WWI as background. It fits the mood of the play, with warlike Fortinbras prowling toward Denmark whose royal house is in turmoil. It also allows costumer Clair Hummel to overlay a lively period look -- sporty officer's uniforms or three-piece suits for the men, and layered Titanic-era diaphanous gowns for the women.

Mark Krouskup's more traditional sets rely on the dank, standard castle-look that has been the broody Dane's visual stereotype for at least two centuries, but they're efficiently mobile, while those mammoth bas-relief faces on their stony sides speak loudly of fate and man's ultimate destiny.

The atmospheric lighting and projection designs by Clint Allen are tremendously clever (when Laertes takes his leave, a phalanx of biplanes sees him off), glossing this production with wit. The sound design by Jonathan Middens, with its snatches of ragtime or "Lord of the Rings" thumping rhythms, or the soft thud of war's faraway shelling, adds another intricate layer to those already supplied by the Bard.

Director Pickering has fun with Hamlet, although the steam bath scene comes out of nowhere. Does castle Elsinore have a spa? The updating does no harm and, at least, treats Shakespeare with respect.

One of the most influential of all world dramas for its stunning psychological insight and iron-clad structure, Shakespeare's most famous work is basically a revenge play, a type much favored in Jacobean theater, circa 1602. Prince Hamlet (Benjamin Reed), already unhappy that his recently widowed mother Gertrude (Cindy Pickett) has hastily married his uncle Claudius (Mark Metcalf), is then haunted by the ghost of his father (David Rainey) who reveals that he has been foully murdered by Claudius.

Hamlet is commanded by the woeful specter to seek vengeance. Hamlet spends the remainder of the play planning the deed, delaying the deed, or thinking about the deed. Shakespeare keeps us on edge with Hamlet's indecision (will he be damned for killing a killer?) as his personal life threatens to derail him. He feigns madness, gives up his love Ophelia (Amelia Hammond), stages a play within the play to "catch the conscience of the king," rashly and mistakenly kills Ophelia's father Polonius (Ruddy Cravens), duels with hot-tempered Laertes (Andrew Garrett), and finally achieves his ghostly objective, leaving the stage littered with corpses.

Hamlet's so immense as drama because there are so many ways to play it. Shakespeare doesn't spell out motives, certainly not with any detail; he allows us to fill in the gaps. Young-looking Reed, a recent master's graduate from the prestigious University of Houston Professional Actor Training Program, fills the moody Dane with flashing intelligence, quicksilver humor, and a chilling sense of dread. He looks like the university student Hamlet is supposed to be, and when he woos and then discards his former love Ophelia, it's a young man's outrage. He delivers all his famous soliloquies ("To be or not to be," "What a piece of work is man," "O that this too too solid flesh would melt") with consummate skill and understanding, and lets us hear them anew so we can marvel at their complexity of human feeling and stunning wordplay.

In this version of this mighty play, Metcalf (as weasel Claudius), Rainey (as ghost, player king, and gravedigger), Cravens (as fatuous Polonius) and newcomer Hammond (as fragile Ophelia) breathe such life into their characters that they seem resuscitated. The play expands with them. As Claudius grows ever more desperate (no matter how he tries, he can't seem to dispatch his stepson), he grows ever more dissipated, and Metcalf always has a drink in his hand to kill the pain. Dangerous, he's a worthy adversary and rival.

Rainey shows his wide range in his trio of roles, all different: troubled ghost, player king, and witty, blues-singing gravedigger. Cravens, of course, eats up Polonius like an hors d'oeuvre, overlaying his bluster with a father's loving concern. When he questions Hamlet's madness, Cravens steps right to the edge of the stage and confides in us personally. He's a brilliant trooper, and Shakespeare comes naturally to his bones; he practically purrs his lines. Hammond impresses with Ophelia's freshness and chilling mad scene, which inhabits her so completely that we shudder at her sad fate. If this charmer can go mad, what's in store for the rest of us?

The subsidiary characters are handled with aplomb, although Pickett, as Queen Gertrude, is a shade too hazy and indistinct. Played as more cotton candy than steel wool, she jumped some cues and flubbed a few lines, which disrupted the flow so essential to Shakespeare's knife-edge dramaturgy. She wasn't quite there. The verdict: If you're new to Hamlet, HSF's version is a refreshing primer, filled with clever insights and a very good leading man. No matter the fame it carries on its ancient shoulders, the play, not often enough done, should never scare anyone away, novice or theater maven. It packs an emotional wallop with perhaps an even greater impact than when it debuted. The Shakespeare Festival embraces Shakespeare's great Dane with loving arms; you will too.

Shakespeare's immortal play, which Laurence Olivier once subtitled "a man who could not make up his mind," continues its run on August 7, 9, and 11 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park. Tickets are free, with open seating on the hill. For the covered seating area, free tickets are available at the box office the day of the performance between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. For more information, visit the theater's website or call 281-823-9103.

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