There is no one right way to play Hamlet, the woebegone Danish prince whose well-laid plans for revenge culminate in one of the biggest bloodbaths in dramatic history.
He can be credibly played as an immature and tortured man stuck in a post-adolescent funk. He can just as easily seem a few lines short of a full soliloquy, a guy whose nature or circumstance has caused him to come off his mental hinges. And there are any number of interpretations beyond these.
But Shaun Sheley, in his first attempt at the daunting character in Saul Elkin’s production of “Hamlet” for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, seems to have found a novel approach. His Hamlet, conceived in concert with Elkin, is an entirely pragmatic if occasionally jocular figure. He does not seem trapped in an existential crisis so much as stuck in the midst of a particularly bloody crossword puzzle, attempting to reason his way out of an entirely unreasonable situation.
Put yourself in his custom-made fencing boots: Your dead father materializes out of the ether one chilly midnight to inform you that he was murdered by your creepy uncle, who then immediately slapped a ring on your hapless mother’s finger and assumed your rightful place on the throne. As if this were not enough, said uncle turns two of your best friends against you while the woman you deeply love is forbidden from even speaking to you by her overly protective father and brother. Meanwhile, a war-hungry Norway is planning to get all up in your native country’s grill.
But here we have Sheley, rattling off his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy mid-stroll as if he’s debating over which brand of hot dogs he should buy for this weekend’s cookout. It’s in many ways a refreshing approach to a character who is often overplayed – one that sees every step Hamlet makes as a move in a grand chess game. But what this interpretation gains in human authenticity, it loses more in visceral impact – that addictive quality of an unmoored man casting about for solutions to an impossible crisis.
To be sure, Sheley is a gifted actor who renders Hamlet’s anger credibly and who acts and speaks Shakespeare’s language in a way that makes his intent immediately clear. It’s just that this interpretation, so confident and calculated, skips over one of Hamlet’s most interesting and universal flaws: his confusion.
Whatever you may think of the protagonist, this production contains a phenomenal cast of supporting actors. Foremost among these is Tim Newell, who plays Claudius from the beginning as a creature incredibly fun to detest. As the bloviating Polonius and a cheeky grave-digger, Tom Loughlin brings a welcome level of humor to the proceedings. And a scene in which an exasperated Claudius and Gertrude (Lisa Vitrano) listen to his endless ramblings is the comic highlight of the show.
As Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest driven mad by the accidental murder of her father at Hamlet’s sword, Rebecca Elkin-Young is an all-too-harrowing vision of grief-driven lunacy. And as Laertes, the Francophile fencer who returns to Denmark to avenge his father’s death, Adam Rath gives a wonderfully nuanced turn that shows he has been hard at work on his acting. John Profeta also does fine work as Hamlet’s best bud Horatio.
Karen Tashjian’s spare set, with two tapestries that put us right in the period, is lovely. It provides an excellent canvas for Chris Cavanagh’s lighting, which beautifully highlights Ken Shaw’s lovely costumes and works well, in turn, with Tom Makar’s typically excellent and unobtrusive sound design.
In the end, no matter who speaks the words Shakespeare gives to Hamlet or his fellow Danes, it’s always a pleasure to hear them, and something new can always be extracted from the experience. This “Hamlet,” straightforward and occasionally plodding as it may be, offers up plenty of rewards.