By Philip Pearce
THERE’S AN EXCITING NEW piece of raw local theater called Hamlet now playing at MPC. I’ve seen dozens of deeper and more meaningful productions. But few if any of them have plunged me with such headlong force straight into the passions and hang-ups of its cast of characters.
An inspired new Theatre Arts instructor named Justin Matthew Gordon has pared the script down to a swift two and a quarter hours. He directs with a single-minded commitment that honors the play’s rollercoaster ride of melodramatic events and cuts away any subtlety or subtext that threatens to get in the way.
Justin Gaudoin—he was the Man of La Mancha at the Forest Theater last year—plays the title role with a full-throttled power that may occasionally get too loud and energetic for comfort but is never, ever boring. Facing the Ghost (James Brady, who doubles as Claudius) he writhes and shrieks and stiffens like a man receiving electric shock treatment. The familiar soliloquies that follow aren’t philosophic reflections; they’re explosive howls of frustration, confusion and rage. The one exception is “To be or not to be,” which is pushed way ahead of its usual spot and becomes a quietly troubled meditation on mortality after the killing of Polonius. But the overriding Sturm und Drang of this explosive Hamlet’s inner life clearly suggest that right from the start he’s deranged if not certifiable.
How do you then deal with his contrasting decision to put on an antic disposition in a series of deft and deliberate knockabout comedy routines that affront the court and are clearly the work of a talented, organized and shrewdly calculating young politician?
Is Hamlet really crazy of just pretending? It’s fascinating to watch Gordon play both sides of the old debate without ever coming to a conclusion. Too many exciting story events to cover to bother pausing for an answer?
The cast all perform with the heightened excitement of people who suspect they’re involved in something new and important. There are sharp characterization choices all along the way, some of them questionable, some of them inspired.
Gordon decides once or twice too often to have Hamlet solve every conflict by flooring and throttling his writhing opponent. But one of this actor’s academic specialties being stage combat, his final sword fight with Roland Shorter’s Laertes is a heart-stopper and I have never seen or heard a better take on the graveside moments with the skull of Yorick.
Almost from the start, Ophelia shows symptoms of insanity which Sarah Horn diversifies and develops impressively with each new appearance.
Howard Burnham never puts a foot wrong as the smarmiest, most meticulous and funny Polonius you’re likely to see in the next couple of decades.
Lyla Englehorn dies beautifully as Gertrude but offers most of her lines at a brisk and breathless speed that often masks what she’s saying.
James Brady starts appropriately as a smiling but conventionally dull Claudius, only to sink his teeth firmly into the role when he tries to pray away his villainy. Like Macbeth he becomes a man who knows all the depths and shoals of his sin and breaks your heart with his inability to change.
It’s a show where the flaws and glitches are nearly as interesting as the triumphs.
Leaving the Studio Theatre, I was more convinced than ever that, edit or slant it as you will, committed, in-your-face Shakespeare is Shakespeare at his best.
Go and see this one. It continues weekends through March 18th.