I have some friends who think William Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language, but they don’t like going to the theater to see performances of his work. Why, they ask, did the company have to make Desdemona a man and set the play in 1950s Wisconsin? Could we have done without the acid trance dance number? What’s with all the zombies?
With a female Horatio, nineteenth century setting, and heavily edited text (including some lines borrowed from other Shakespeare plays), Hedgerow Theatre’s current production of HAMLET is not for literary sticklers, but it makes a good argument for the joy of seeing Shakespeare onstage. Hedgerow’s annual autumnal offering is billed as its “Fall Thriller”, and director Dan Hodge has taken this moniker to heart, playing up the spookiness of the ghostly appearances and speeding the action to its tragic end with a driving pace and intensity.
The story is well known: HAMLET (Jared Reed), prince of Denmark, receives a visit from the ghost of his father (John Lopes), informing him that Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (also Lopes) killed him to take his crown and marry Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Stacy Skinner). The prince is tormented, and Claudius and Gertrude, assisted by adviser Polonius (Zoran Kovcic), use Hamlet’s love interest Ophelia (Annette Kaplafka) and friends Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (Brock Vickers and Joel Guerrero) to discover the cause of his malady.
The plot is relatively simple, and Hodge keeps it uncluttered and easy to follow. His first stricture seems to be that theater should entertain, but he is able to do this in a way that allows our focus to rest on Shakespeare’s windows into the human soul, the vibrancy of his personalities, and the beauty of his language.
Reed plays Hamlet not as a angst-filled student but as an intelligent prince clouded by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. His delivery is clean. He demonstrates and encourages understanding of Hamlet’s conflicted thoughts, though as in last year’s Macbeth he seems to break from the action at times, as if saying “okay, now I’m going to do a soliloquy”,
As it is a repertory company with resident members, Hedgerow productions sometimes seem to have unfitting actors in some roles, chosen not because they are best for the character, but because they are there. This is not evident in HAMLET. Along with stalwart actor (and company artistic director) Reed, Vickers and Guerrero entertain as Hamlet’s hapless friends and Kovcic plays Polonius with an endearing respect the character deserves. Visiting actor Robert Daponte is a standout as Ophelia’s brother Laertes and as the player king (although Hodge has cut that character’s best lines, helpful though they are for our understanding of the play, and life: “Our wills and fates do so contrary run/ That our devices still are overthrown./ Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own”).
As a director, Hodge is willing to be creative with Shakespeare’s text to bring out the Bard’s themes. In his Macbeth (Hedgerow), Hodge raised the profile of the usually minor character of Seyton, Macbeth’s servant, to emphasize the malevolent fateful forces at work in the play. In his Tempest (Curio) he combined the characters of Miranda and Ariel. to play up the magical control which Prospero exerted over them. Here, he casts Jennifer Summerfield in the traditionally male role of Horatio to refocus our attention on Hamlet’s friendships (an important but relatively unconsidered theme of this play, and Shakespeare’s work in general).
Once again, Hodge has used the opportunities which live performance provides to enrich our appreciation for and understanding of Shakespeare. Yes, the play’s the thing. [146 West Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, PA] October 25-November 15, 2014; hedgerowtheatre.org.