Once again, the stars shine at the outdoor Hill Theatre, with American Players Theatre’s production of “Hamlet.”
Last seen on the Hill in 2013, Shakespeare’s longest – and most popular of 37 plays – currently showcases a magnificent cast of 19 directed by James DeVita, who coincidentally portrayed Claudius in the 2013 production. And the always amazing, cued-for-passion DeVita has kept this production well-paced (no four-hour show here!) and engaging.
“The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” has endured for over 400 years, and seen many a well-known actor in the title role – from Laurence Olivier to Mel Gibson. And who isn’t familiar with the ultimate tragic revenge/dysfunctional family saga?
“One woe doth tread upon another’s heel” in Elsinore, Denmark. Late at night, sentry guards keep seeing a ghost that oddly resembles the late king. Horatio, friend to Hamlet, is brought in as a witness and tells Hamlet of the apparition. Hamlet learns from the ghost, his father, that his uncle Claudius killed him; Hamlet is also upset that his mother, Gertrude, married Claudius two months after his father died. Hamlet seeks revenge, and the ball starts rolling on a series of tragic events that involves friends, his love Ophelia and enemies.
“What a piece of work is a man” – and in this case that man is Nate Burger. As Hamlet, he is incredible. The amount of lines in Hamlet’s soliloquies and monologues alone that Burger consistently delivers – and flawlessly – is an amazing accomplishment. Seated, he does a stunning “to be or not to be.” More extraordinary is his pacing soliloquy about his father’s death and mother’s “most wicked speed” in marrying; Burger’s descent into madness is done without the melancholy, but with thoughtful reflection. It’s a marvelous contradiction – is it pretense or reality? Burger is charismatic, handsome, tall, expressive vocally and physically (capturing the gamut of happiness, panic, fear, pain and peace) and just perfectly cast.
But then so is Triney Sandoval as the villainous and cunning Claudius. He’s cocky, a loud roarer, stubborn, and has the voice and attitude to pull off the high-and-mighty king. And you almost buy into his charms with his prayerful “forgive me my foul murder” and his apparent care for Gertrude.
David Daniel, the “so excellent a king” and murdered father, is regal and justifiably revengeful, and a complete turnaround from the comedic grave digger he portrays in Act Two. He is wonderful.
Thankfully, Colleen Madden’s Gertrude is not the typical meek queen. Madden delivers one of the best Ophelia’s drowned announcements I’ve ever heard. She truly is despairing with her “words like swords,” and shows a turbulent relationship with her son. Alys Dickerson is a strong, dutiful, obedient Ophelia with a beautiful singing voice. The traditional male role of Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, is portrayed with swagger and understanding by the very skillful Kelsey Brennan.
Chiké Johnson’s Polonius is played intelligently, and not aged or bumbling. He’s decisive, verbose, and gets to deliver probably the most well-known and recognized lines to his son, Laertes: “to thine own self be true … neither a lender nor a borrower be.”
And as for Laertes? Jamal James is a fierce, mesmerizing, magnificent and larger-than-life character, imposing in height and voice. Best incensed with Hamlet and heartbreaking with his gut-wrenching reaction to Ophelia’s drowning, James is captivating.
What also makes this production so strong and viable is its simple and ingenious set designed by Takeshi Kata – a series of sliding panels, bars and spiral staircases so utilitarian and unobtrusive. Daniele Tyler Mathew’s costumes may be a mix of eras from Shakespearean times, the 1920s and 1940s to futuristic, but they fit the characters and are visually attractive, with none more stunning than the ghost of the deceased king with his mottled makeup coinciding with the gold, green and purple of his armor and cape. André Pluess’ sound effects and original music and Jason Fassl’s light designs are fluid and complementary enhancements. Fight Director Jeb Burris’ work with Burger, James and Sandoval is believable and very satisfactory, especially in the clang and slice of the finale.
APT’s Artistic Director Brenda DeVita says, “Hamlet is one of those plays that we can see again and again each time with new eyes and a new perspective.” James DeVita gives us that new perspective from start to finish; perhaps more than any other director, he illustrates how the characters in “Hamlet” suffer a myriad of societal expectations and rules of duty and obedience.
As Hamlet states, “the play’s the thing,” and in this case, APT’s play is a phenomenal thing.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is an ardent fan of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” She is a working actress and director who began her area career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. When not traveling with her husband, she loves to teach, attend live theater, and serve on area theater boards. She currently is directing Elgin Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “I Hate Hamlet.”
IF YOU GO
WHERE: American Players Hill Theatre, Spring Green, Wisconsin
WHEN: Through Oct. 8
COST: $59 to $99
INFORMATION: 608-588-2361, www.americanplayers.org