Theater Review: HAMLET (Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 27, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Century after century, thespian tyro after marquee headliner, something remains rotten in the state of Denmark. A defining challenge for thousands of careers, Hamlet persists as both a title and a test, Shakespeare’s longest if not deepest tragedy. At nearly three hours, Barbara Gaines’ magisterial modern-dress revival is a valuable and workmanlike continuation of this fierce franchise.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s revival delivers, yet again, a thirtysomething scholar’s sudden encounter with intimate evil too close for comfort — and, initially, for resistance and revenge. Hamlet must grow a spine in order to wield a sword.

Assembling a virtual inventory of Windy City wonders, Gaines showcases a stellar cast, Chicago spellbinders who could never let the Bard down or waste a classic line. Heading this excellent ensemble is Broadway phenom Maurice Jones. Relying less on tradition or technique than instinct and intuition, his heir apparent is a suitably complex amalgam of both unbridled eloquence and fear that words may paralyze performance.

Inevitably, the Prince of Denmark’s infamous indecision — he repeatedly tests his ghostly father’s tale of regicide by an uncle and, gasp, the Dane’s very mother — is a maddening pretext for procrastination. We wouldn’t have it otherwise: It prolongs the play and makes the four-corpse ending all the scarier and satisfying. Thanks to fight choreographer Matt Hawkins, that brief duel, two sons’ bloody showdown, is one of the scariest if shortest clashes ever. And earlier, thanks to Mike Tutaj’s wonderful projections, the apparition of Hamlet I is a smoky masterpiece, as supernatural a sight as a stage can offer.

What comes across, more than usually in this pell-mell play, is just how much Denmark’s dark powers — Karen Aldridge’s horribly haunted Queen Gertrude and Tim Decker as her greedy partner King Claudius — need to believe that the son’s lunacy is the derangement of a smitten lover. If only it were so simple — that Hamlet’s love-hate affair with Rachel Nicks’ anguished Ophelia is the motive for his madness. They do not, however, want to embrace the obvious explanation: Hamlet is unhinged by dad’s death and mom’s marriage with his murderer.

In this very copacetic and propulsive production one omission stands out. Here Hamlet does not tell his treacherous college chums Rosencrantz (Alex Goodrich) and Guildenstern (Samuel Taylor), two very clumsy spies, that he’s only pretending to be insane. In C.S.T.’s telling, it seems, no disclaimers are given either to evildoers or the audience.

Exemplary work comes from all directions — Sean Allan Krill as a stolid Horatio, Hamlet’s only confidant; ardent and irrepressible Paul Deo, Jr. rampaging as action-figure Laertes; and, as his fated father, Larry Yando, a fussbudget gasbag and blowhard with sententious wisdom whose dead body becomes a running joke.

But what may well be most remembered about this production is the delicious vaudeville turns between veteran comic geniuses Mike Nussbaum and Greg Vinkler. As two sardonic gravediggers reveling in the mortality that levels us all into skulls, they deliver marvelously understated quips and quibbles. Their byplay, as well as Nussbaum’s equivocating exchanges with Hamlet, is simply priceless.

However hungry to set things right, Jones’ vengeance-seeker lacks the unstoppable urgency with which so few actors have supercharged this prince of light (rather than darkness). Happily, he burns bright enough. In any case, this play’s a marathon, not a sprint. Gaines’s all-achieving cast makes it an edgy enterprise, a thrill ride without a seat belt. The rot is real.

photos by Liz Lauren

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
The Jentes Family Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
ends on June 9, 2019
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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