Oh, to be a young prince stuck firmly in "emerging adulthood," a time when you're too old to respond to an existential crisis with a trip to Hot and some black eyeliner, but still too young to have any perspective or wisdom to bring to the table. That’s right, William Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy, Hamlet, kicks off this year’s Houston Shakespeare Festival.
The set-up for Hamlet is simple: The titular Prince of Denmark is back home, troubled by his father’s death and his mother’s subsequent re-marriage to Hamlet’s uncle less than two months later. Yep, he likes this turn of events just about as much as you’d expect. The situation becomes more complicated when a ghost of the late king appears to Hamlet, imploring him to avenge his murder by punishing the murderer – Claudius, his own brother, and Hamlet’s new stepfather. Hamlet decides to feign madness as he tries to verify the veracity of this new information and decide what to do, trolling not only his murderous uncle-stepfather, but his mother, Gertrude; his old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; his on-again, off-again lady friend, Ophelia; and her father, Polonius. But, like that old Confucian saying about digging two graves when seeking revenge foretold, the body count starts to rise in true Shakespearean fashion, as Hamlet’s quest quickly consumes not only him, but everyone around him.
Despite being Shakespeare's longest play, director Jack Young has trimmed it to a very manageable, briskly paced affair clocking in at about two hours and fifteen minutes. Yet, the production ultimately suffers from a lack of cohesion and vision.
Hamlet is chock full of themes and ideas, but they're lost in this production, with only the "will he, when will he" aspect left behind. Admittedly, part of the problem may be that they were lost to the night. The sound was spotty throughout the show, too often vacillating from way too loud to whisper quiet. The über dramatic musical transitions, which were themselves quite enjoyable, were unfortunately out of place in this particular production, which favored dark humor and so lacked the edge and intensity to match them. They also came in too early and too loud, stealing even more lines of dialogue from the audience.
And while Young and his actors make good use of Scenic Designer Jonathan Middents’s two-story, blue-tinged set, it is surprisingly generic, as are Paige A. Wilson’s out-of-time costumes, both of which didn’t help situate a production that was in desperate need of finding its footing early. Though the costumes imply a certain vintage aesthetic, what with the almost-not-quite zoot suits of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes’s fedora and trench coat, and Ophelia’s fur-trimmed coat, it’s unclear exactly what vintage time that might be, and is further confused by Claudius’s incandescent ensemble and Gertrude’s skirt suit (not to mention the king and queen’s simple, modern, headband-like crowns).
Despite the production’s weaknesses, many of the performances were top-notch. Shannon Hill imbues the character of Hamlet with a more pronounced vulnerability and impulsiveness, one quite befitting a troll-ish young prince who’s grown up idle rich. Hill hit her stride after intermission, finding a better balance between the character’s (justified) moodiness and (less justified, but at times too funny) a-hole-ish-ness.
Crash Buist is quite the commanding presence as Claudius, yet he still manages to amp it up even further as the ghost, cutting a forceful, imposing (father) figure further enhanced by Clint Allen’s otherworldly blue-green lighting. Andrew Garrett similarly held court as a stately actor playing a king in the show’s play within a play, and also as the Gravedigger.
Demetria Thomas’s Gertrude skillfully goes from overwrought to drunk and resigned as Shannon Uphold’s Ophelia goes from confused to insane in the play’s most uncomfortable, disturbing (in a good way) scene.
Derrick Moore is a killer (no pun intended) Laertes, conveying a wide range of emotion throughout the show, from a bit of playful interplay with his sister and father as an introduction to a palpable horror and heartbreak after his father’s death and his sister (unlike Hamlet) legitimately going mad.
Moore, along with Buist and Carlton Warnberg, who injects a much needed bit of levity into the first act, stand out as the best at delivering Shakespeare’s words. All three provide multiple necessary, accessible entry points into the production. Moore and Victoria Reibel (as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively) were on stage all too briefly for such fun characters.
This production of Hamlet isn’t really one for first-timers, who I suspect would wonder what all the fuss is about. But it’s important to note that even an underwhelming production at the Houston Shakespeare Festival is still well worth watching.
Performances continue at 8:15 p.m. on July 29 and 31 and August 2 and 4 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For more information, visit houstonfestivalscompany.com or milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free.
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