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An Insistent Pace Bypasses the Tedium in this Version of the Danish Tragedy

By John Barry | Posted 4/5/2006


By William Shakespeare

At Rep Stage through April 9

In Rep Stage’s production of Hamlet, the grave gets center stage and plenty of use. Yorick’s crumbling skull gets exhumed there. The ghost of Hamlet’s father emerges from it. Hamlet himself reclines in it. The entire company of actors clambers out of it in Act 3. And Ophelia drowns in it. But even when it’s not being used as an exit and entrance, the grave remains an ominous presence. Characters in the play seem to be skirting it; even the actors appear a little wary of it.

In one of the play’s strongest, understated performances, Aubrey Deeker, as Hamlet’s close friend Horatio, stares straight into that six-foot-under pit, anticipating disaster. Hamlet’s father has returned to walk the earth, and he’s told his son to revenge his foul and unnatural murder. Hamlet has taken the bait; Horatio stands on the sidelines and almost knows where the young prince is headed:

    What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
    That beetles o’er his base into the sea, and there assume some other horrible form.

In this forceful, full-tilt production, it’s clear that the die is cast. The stage is built on what looks like a rotting Danish graveyard surrounded by a dark, claustrophobic set that looks a little like a coal mine. Actors and ghosts spring out of the darkness suddenly and violently. And in the center of the entire play is a grim, young, flailing Hamlet, who looks lost in the fun house of his own feverish imagination.

Karl Miller doesn’t quite fit the gaunt, princely mold sometimes associated with Hamlet. Chain-smoking in a leather greatcoat, Miller’s Hamlet looks more like a rebel without a cause than an existentially troubled waffler. Petulant and bursting at the seams, this Hamlet is pawing at the starting gate. If Hamlet studied philosophy at Wittenberg University—as, oddly enough, Miller himself apparently did—you can guess that he probably skipped most of the lectures.

Hamlet screws up royally in Shakespeare’s tragedy, but you can’t really blame him. In Kasi Campbell’s production, the ghost doesn’t just appear to the Danish prince. He grabs Hamlet from behind and wrestles him. Wide-eyed and paralyzed with fear, Hamlet is vulnerable and almost childlike in his helplessness. Campbell’s rapid pacing makes Hamlet appear almost dragged through disasters, leaving corpses in his wake, and never quite gathering himself together to avenge his father’s death.

Such propulsion turns this Hamlet into a captivating tale without the painful ennui. It also makes for an easy version to sit through: Without the meditative element, extended love story, or stretched-out soliloquies, the tragically nutty plot line gets upper billing. After all of the high-powered bravura performances that this play has inspired, it’s worth remembering that, as tragic heroes go, Hamlet is almost comically dysfunctional.

While the high-speed performance keeps the audience tense, it brushes over a few relationships. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia (Kathleen Coons) is unusually brutal—in this version’s mad scene, he almost rapes his beloved, his violence almost unchecked by residual tenderness. When Ophelia finally does get lowered into the ground and Hamlet takes his wrath out on her grieving brother Laertes, the prince’s words ring a little hollow: “Forty thousand brothers/ Could not with all their quantity of love/ Make up my sum.” Yorick’s crumbling skull actually appears to leave Hamlet more distraught than Ophelia’s death.

Miller shares the stage with an excellent team of supporting actors. As Claudius, Nigel Reed offers a creepy counterpart to Hamlet’s panic attacks. His long, thinning hair and casual suit make him look a little like a coke-snorting 1970s relic trying to get in the good graces of his stepson. James Denvil, meanwhile, plays the ghost with eerie calm. Lawrence Redmond gives Polonius, the tiresome and tireless dispenser of advice, a level of dignity frequently left out of this comic role.

In the end, though, Laertes (Daniel Frith) is Hamlet’s only real foil. His almost frantic impulse to act is a perfect balance to Hamlet’s hyperactive indecision. With a final go-for-broke sword fight, the two square off in an extended battle that feels like the moment for which both have been waiting.

This tight, compact, and physical production ends where it begins: with Horatio. His final warning to Hamlet—“You will lose, my lord”—has added impact in a production where, until now, Hamlet has been so caught up in his own nightmares that he appears barely aware of others around him. Deeker’s carefully honed performance gives him the earthly bond the prince needs.

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