a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Hamlet 2

I can’t stop raving about Darko Tresnjak’s rip-roaring, whip-smart production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” now at the Hartford Stage. Following up on his Tony-award-winning Broadway triumph for Best Musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”, where he himself won a Tony for Best Director, and Clint Eastwood announcing his win just said in that distinctive, rumbling voice of his “Darko”, Tresnjak immediately became iconic.

He is also the artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company, a venerable regional theater that he has notably injected new life into, coupled with the renewal of downtown Hartford, it is definitely a trip worth the making. But you’ve got to do it quick because this most excellent “Hamlet” is only running til this coming Sunday, Nov.16.

It’s selling out and you can see why. I wish New Yorkers could see just how vital and vivid this “Hamlet” is.

Tresnjak has decided to do this Shakespeare straight, no-frills in an accurately Elizabethan production, eye-poppingly costumed by Fabio Toblini with a stunningly simple but provocative set by Darko Tresnjak himself!

The Hartford’s thrust stage is in the form of an illuminated cross, strikingly and eerily lit from below by lighting designer Matthew Richards. The actors are literally walking on footlights.

One of the great banes of regional theater has always been its’ inability to attract the best of the best actors available to appear out-of-town, but this is not the case at all with this stunning “Hamlet.” It could be on Broadway. Or certainly in Central Park. Everyone everywhere deserves to see this excellent “Hamlet.” The citizens of Hartford are very lucky indeed.

Of course, “Hamlet” is only as a great as the Hamlet himself and Zach Appelman, whose career I have been following since the Yale School of Drama, is its’ unforgettable hero.

Still in his 20s’, he’s the youngest Hamlet I’ve ever seen, but that works like gang-busters, because the gloomy Dane’s rash and violent impetuosity is much more suited to a brash, hot-headed youth.

Appelman enters and holds the stage, as only someone with buckets of charisma could, with his hands clasped, as if in prayer. Whilst the gaudy, bawdy court around him is celebrating, he is lost in grief.

Appelman has a lazer-like focus on the text and speaks it beautifully, making the role absolutely his. His has a tremendous, elastic athleticism, making his climatic sword and dagger fight with Laertes ( the wonderful Anthony Roach) something remarkable and frightening at the same time. How many actors can wield a sword and Shakespeare’s verse with equal, spine-tingling skill? He nearly chokes his mother (Kate Forbes) to death in the famous closet scene as he also kills Polonius(a super Edward James Hyland).

Appelman also gets laughs out of Hamlet. Spunky and jaunty as well as clinically depressed by his uncle’s murder of his father, he is particularly witty as his takes the piss out of old Polonius. Veteran Edward James Hyland is also one of the best, funniest old court geezers I have ever seen, too.

Appelman switches from the sublime to the ridiculous with the ease of an Olivier. Have we ever seen a FUNNY Hamlet? The superb Appelman is not playing it for laughs, but finding the sly humor in the young, melancholy prince. You see that MAYBE he might have had a chance at happiness had all these tragic events not happened to him. And every laugh that Appelman and Hyland get are earned laughter springing from their apt characterizations.

Tresnjak really his knows his Shakespeare and it’s a joy to behold that he has a cast that is up to his challenges. Brittany Vicars is an appropriately ethereal, fragile Ophelia and Floyd King and Curtis Billings are a riot as the comical grave-diggers. In fact, Tresnjak has left in parts of their scene that are usually cut, which I was delighted to hear for the first time anywhere. Usually there is just ONE grave-digger, but in this longer scene, we actually hear their comical discussion of Ophelia’s suicide. If there was ever any question of what the river did to her and what she did to the river, the grave-diggers settle it once and for all.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tresnjak’s use of five students from the nearby Hartford-based colleges.Who knew that Harford was so culturally rich? I have to mention Conor M. Hammill, who excels as not only Francisco and Voltemand, but also a memorable Fortinbras,the Polish prince who ends the play. Who ever remembers Fortinbras? Well, you will this time. And Adam Montgomery is also very, very good as the flighty courtier Osric and a terrific player Queen. They both are currently still in school and what an education they are getting working with and holding their own against some of the best actors currently on this planet.

I can’t recommend this production of “Hamlet” highly enough! The trip is worth the trip.

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