Shallow Hamlet

Prince Hamlet has always been a moody, anxious fellow. Anyone haunted by the ghost of his murdered father would be. But as played by Ty Mayberry in Hamlet at the Alley Theatre, the poor guy comes off as downright dotty. Gone is the brooding intellectual filled with existential angst, the dark, lonely lover of lost ladies, the grief-stricken son who seduces us into his solitary world of spiritual anguish. In his place is a sneering, petulant brat who starts off his journey capable of little more than inflicting minor wounds with his morbid sarcasm.

By the time he's murdered Polonius in a gleeful and especially grizzly rampage, danced at a party in high heels and a long black skirt, and slowly kissed his cool-hearted mum on the lips a few times, Mayberry's Hamlet (who's clearly been shaped by the extravagant imagination of director Gregory Boyd) has morphed into a monster no one would want wandering the halls of the castle, no matter how righteous his cause.

Tall and muscular, with tousled black hair hanging over his deep-set blue eyes, Mayberry certainly looks princely enough. And he can swing a sword with the best of them. But this young actor's physicality doesn't quite fit the part; there is a charming awkwardness, a boy-next-door sweetness in his gait that feels strangely out of place in rotten Denmark. And Mayberry's boyish voice struggles with the enormous range Shakespeare demands of his young hero. The long monologues for which Hamlet is so famous become a mush of straining "words, words, words," as Hamlet himself says. Most important, Mayberry's performance simply lacks the emotional depth and intellectual nuance needed to bring Hamlet's long and brooding story to life, especially the various shades of grief and rage that motivate everything he does.

Instead, Mayberry brings an awful lot of emoting with a capital E. In fact, many of the major players walk around the castle screaming and crying out, but most of it feels like a lot of hot air. Very little seems grounded in any real emotion. The result is that Hamlet's rich story becomes a good literature lesson but doesn't have much theatrical punch. The production even looks terrific, but one doesn't come away feeling much of anything.

Every major character sounds weirdly unreal. Elizabeth Heflin is gorgeous as Gertrude, Hamlet's now swanky mother. With her flaming hair and high, dusty-white cheek bones, she's irresistible, except for the fact that she doesn't seem to have a beating heart. Like some strange Shakespearean Stepford wife, Heflin listens to the calculating Claudius (James Black) and obeys without any worries. She wrings her hands a bit over Hamlet and his bad behavior, but even when he kills Polonius she is able to keep her wits and not muss up her lovely rose-colored robe.

Pretty Jennifer Cherry, who for some reason has been dowdied into a skinny frump in a beige suit, does a traditional turn at Ophelia. While she sounds very Shakespearean every time she says "My Lord!" there is simply no fire. Inexplicably, Boyd has excised any hint of love or even carnality between Ophelia and Hamlet. She pines for him, but it's impossible to know why, as he truly doesn't seem to know her at all. Most strange is her mad speech in which she seems to be suffering some sort of stabbing physical pain that causes her to clutch at her belly. It's a mystery what Boyd wants us to make of this -- perhaps she's given herself an abortion, or sipped poison, or simply has a tummy ache. And Black's Claudius is prone to pausing at odd moments to invigorate his performance.

Only John Tyson as the foolish Polonius and Charles Krohn as the wisecracking grave digger manage to stay on their feet. Tyson's sparkling intellect keeps him afloat. Krohn's impeccable timing and melodious voice make his brief mo-ment on stage one of the brightest.

As with all Boyd's productions, there are whole scenes that are richly imagined. "The play's the thing," says Hamlet, and indeed, when the players are on, dressed in their colorful and tarty stockings, the show gets better. And when the players enact the murder, first in shadow behind a white curtain, then behind beautiful ceramic masks, the scene is mesmerizing. Mayberry, too, comes to life in these moments. Dressed in black satin, with an enormous hooped skirt tied around his waist, he is utterly convincing as the crazed man Hamlet seems to be.

Mostly, though, this production has trouble finding its emotional center. With his usual wit and eye, Boyd has crafted a production that looks terrific on the surface, but there isn't much to care about beyond the glitter. Even his flair for the flamboyant cannot cover the muddle of emotions underneath the lovely veneer.

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Lee Williams