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James Kegley

Editorial Review

At Folger Theatre, a contemporary 'Hamlet' with Graham Michael Hamilton

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Don't look for a princely Dane with a mind disheveled -- or a single hair out of place -- in Folger Theatre's chilly new "Hamlet," a production so primly orchestrated that even the passions feel tucked in.

The idea of Elsinore as a domain disinfected of any emotion comes through in James Kronzer's sterile set, a modern white interior, all sharp angles and twisting stairways. Absolutely nothing is rotten in this Denmark: It seems positively germ-free. And no one embodies director Joseph Haj's concept more completely than Graham Michael Hamilton, whose generically contemporary Hamlet is redolent less of the character's days at Wittenberg University than of nights at the gym and the mall.

In fact, everyone in this placidly uninvolving, streamlined version -- in which all of the myriad roles are played by a mere 12 actors -- is decked out as if being styled for a J. Crew photo shoot. More attention has been paid to the look than the lines, and as a result, you're never allowed under this Hamlet's skin, or to understand what is at risk for the agitated members of Claudius and Gertrude's illegitimate court. Something is at odds with Shakespearean logic when the actor projecting the most fully fleshed-out character is playing a ghost.

The verse is delivered competently by Haj's ensemble. And an interesting kernel of an idea is contained in the production's hard-to-follow, abstract video version of the play-within-a-play whereby Hamlet catches the conscience of the king. Still, little evidence is offered here of the attributes that set this peerless royal tragedy apart: the sneaks-up-on-you humor, the love of pretending, the intensity of the hero's quest to come to terms with life's intractable ambiguities.

Lightly underscored by the tasteful restaurant music of Jack Herrick, this "Hamlet" seems intent on making of its star attraction just another guy with family issues. The young man's soliloquies, as he struggles over avenging his father's apparent murder, bear no telltale signs here of an introspective nature. The staging does away, too, with any indication of Hamlet's craziness, feigned or otherwise. When he famously confides to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is "but mad north-northwest," the reality is that Hamilton's character appears perfectly lucid in every direction.

David Whelan and Deborah Hazlett are serviceable as Claudius and Gertrude, even if Hazlett's queen has been reduced to clueless bystander. Lea Coco's Horatio exudes some admirable grit, while Justin Adams's Laertes is a mite overwrought, with his demonstrative chest-heaving and all. In the eternally difficult role of Ophelia, the love object who must make a sharp pivot into insanity, Lindsey Wochley fulfills the basic requirements.

Todd Scofield, doing triple duty in roles as the Ghost of Hamlet's Father, the Player King and First Gravedigger, paints with the evening's most persuasive brush strokes of Shakespearean character. Given the Ikea-bland state of this Scandinavian kingdom, things might have been livelier had he materialized in a few more.

By William Shakespeare. Directed by Joseph Haj. Costumes, Jan Chambers; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; fight director, Casey Dean Kaleba; video design, Francesca Talenti. With Stephen Patrick Martin, Dan Crane, Billy Finn, Michael Glenn, Jonathan Lee Taylor. About 2 hours 45 minutes.