How do you reduce “Hamlet” to its lowest common denominator?
Cut the text to a manageable two-and-a-half hours, play on a bare-boned stage with few props and set pieces, and double-cast the many roles for eight actors, which is the approach that the resourceful New York-based Aquila Theatre Company has done in their touring production that plays through Sunday at the Cutler/Majestic Theatre.
It certainly makes for a lean, compelling “Hamlet,” a clean, imaginative re-telling of the most familiar of Shakespeare tragedy. There doesn’t seem to be any lack of productions of late: Just last summer the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company produced a high-concept version on the Common; and next week Providence’s Trinity Repertory Theatre mounts its own version.
How does this vest-pocket “Hamlet” stand-up? Well enough, it turns out. Robert Richmond’s modern-dress may lack the high style of the Commonwealth Shakespeare production; but it unfolds with a focused unity of purpose and economy. Not only do the actors double up on the roles, but it isn’t surprising to see a door be transformed into a bed. This is a production that you sense could travel in a van, and it’s a credit to the Aquila that they keep things to a bare minimum while maintaining a high level of quality. Richmond not only elicits solid performances from his cast, but also imaginatively tightens the play with choreographed bits between scenes that inform the plot against the blast of Anthony Cochrane’s choral techno music. Most memorable: when Ophelia rises from her funeral bier to disappear into the shadows, creating a wonderfully eerie effect.
Central to the production success is Anthony Schwartz’s Hamlet. Looking like he walked out of the nearby Emerson dorms, Schwartz looks every inch the student. (One of the drollest bits is having wear a t-shirt with “Wittenberg” emblazoned across the front.) But his measured and assured understanding of Hamlet’s struggle holds the production together. He speaks with a resonant cadence, and intelligently parses out the wily maneuvering of his character as he plots his revenge. The simplicity of the production only underscores the dynamic between the characters and the fact that “Hamlet” is, simply, the most exalted of revenge melodramas. All of this is clear in Schwartz’s performance.
Natasha Piletich brings a surprising level of pathos to Gertrude, making her dilemma far more palpable than in most productions. Richard Sheridan Willis is appropriately sleek as the duplicitous Claudius; Andy Patterson brings out the humor of Polonius without resorting to caricature; Daniel Mormon’s Laertes nicely complements Schwartz’s Hamlet; with her shock of red hair, Emily Bennett makes a striking Ophelia (her mad scene was wonderfully played); and Daniel Marmion and Jay Painter are fine in a number of smaller roles.
This “Hamlet” may not have the layered dimension of last summer’s production, or its striking look; but it works nicely on its own level. That it pulls of this complex play with such ease is a credit to the Aquila’s mission to bring classical theater to as many venues as possible in today’s difficult economic climate.
At the Cutler/Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston, MA. Remaining performances are Friday-Saturday at 7:30pm. MATINEE Saturday at 2pm
Tickets priced $35, $45, $53 (plus fees) and are available at the box office. Telecharge: 1-800/233-3123 . or visit the Cutler/Majestic website.