Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Hamlet
Park Square Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Church and State, Wedding Band, Speechless, Electra, Don Pasquale and R. L. Stine's Goosebumps, the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium


Maeve Coleen Moynihan, Tinne Rosenmeier,
Kory LaQuess PUllam and Kathryn Fumie

Photo by Amy Anderson
Hamlet, William Shakespeare's great play—some would say his greatest, or for that matter, greatest of all plays—is the tragic story of a young man, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, heartbroken by his father's recent death, shocked and hurt by his mother's hasty remarriage to his father's brother Claudius, and haunted by his father's ghost, who reveals to his son the plot by which he was murdered by Claudius, who is now the King. The royal ghost charges Hamlet to avenge his foul death, leaving him with the words "Remember me." Hamlet is undone. How can he know if what he heard is true, that it was not some kind of sorcery or the product of his own anguished mind? And if it be true, does Hamlet have the fortitude to do as his father's ghost bid him? This anguish wreaks havoc with Hamlet's affection for the fair Ophelia, daughter of the prime minister. Then, the prime minister is killed in a tragic case misunderstanding, driving Ophelia over the edge of sanity. These woes will not be resolved without the use of swords, poison, spilt blood, and the death of all but one of the principal characters.

That's the story in a nutshell, and in a nutshell is an apt description of Park Square Theatre's current production. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, running four hours if played in its entirety. For this reason, it is typical for productions be somewhat edited. Joel Sass, who adapted the play for Park Square, and directs as well, has cut it down to under two and a half hours, with twenty minutes of that taken up by the intermission, making it a swift piece of storytelling.

To Sass' credit, the narrative and relationships among characters are clearly depicted, though whole swaths of the story have been exiled—nothing of Hamlet's schoolmates turned spies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, nor of the ongoing war between Denmark and Norway, including the character of the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras, and scenes are edited throughout. Purists are likely to miss the missing pieces but there is much to be said for a Shakespearean tragedy moving with speed and clarity.

However, Sass goes a step further, staging Hamlet in a peculiar setting (which he designed) that includes a large neon-rimmed rhomboid funnel through which characters sometimes enter and exit. This creates a sense of a zoom-in, as if when characters stand within the cube we see them in close-up. There are also video projections of iconic backgrounds and dissolves that look like blood dripping down a pane of glass. Booming musical notes signal foreboding between scenes—reminiscent of the drumbeats between scenes on "Law and Order." There are updated details, such as Hamlet carrying a revolver and the guards carrying machine guns, as well as a joke that uses a fistful of condoms to nail its punchline. With these and other snazzy effects, along with the show's rapid pace, Sass seems to be aiming for a digital age Hamlet.

There are gains to be had from this, no doubt—especially in terms of reaching the students who form a large share of Park Square's audience. Park Square prides itself, with good cause, on serving more students than any other theater in Minnesota (drawing also from western Wisconsin and northern Iowa)—30,000 school visitors last year. The current run of Hamlet includes 15 student group matinees. We want those young audiences to enjoy and relate to Hamlet, and leave the theater wanting more.

However, in this drive to trim, hurry and digitize the play, it loses some of its heart. The technology and speed frequently overwhelm the feelings attached to the words. I found it difficult to attach emotions to the characters, to be moved by Hamlet's crisis of faith and confidence, or to be disturbed by any of the deaths. Hamlet's greatness stems in part from the depths of its ideas, as well as its glorious language and brilliant speeches. But without heart, that greatness is diminished.

This is in no way the fault of lead actor Kory LaQuess Pullam, taking a great leap forward in stature with this performance. Pullam has been a strong presence on Twin Cities stages for several years, with wrenching turns in Pillsbury House's Prep and the Guthrie's Choir Boy. The man knows how to draw forth emotions. His Hamlet conveys the agonizing confusion, unsteadiness, fear and abandonment of the prince. He shifts seamlessly from Hamlet's torturous self-loathing to outrageous grandstanding. But those around him do not meet his lightning bolts to create completed emotional circuits. His electric charge dissipates in the still air around him.

Sandra Struthers has a suitably royal bearing as Hamlet's mother Gertrude, but in the pivotal scenes between them, does not catch fire. She does, however, succeed in conveying the sense that Gertrude was not aware that her late husband was murdered by her present one. Maeve Coleen Moynihan is sweetly adolescent as Ophelia, but seems no match for Hamlet. It is hard to believe he has abandoned her, for it is inconceivable that he ever was hers, and there is little spark between them. Kathryn Fumie plays Hamlet's loyal friend Horatio, a gender change in casting that makes little difference to the character, but the fact is this staging gives Horatio little to do but deliver messages. His loyalty to Hamlet is stated, but not portrayed.

Charles Hubbell comes across more strongly as Claudius, the murderous usurper of the King's throne and wife. His soliloquy in prayer is a high point. Wesley Mouri is effective as Laertes, Ophelia's steadfast brother who conveys an honorable nature as he seeks justice for his sister and mother. I say mother because, though Shakespeare wrote the part of the prime minister as Polonius, father to Ophelia and Laertes, Sass has changed the character's gender, naming her Polonia. In this case, the gender change makes a striking difference. The scene in which Polonia orders Ophelia to disavow romantic feelings for Hamlet comes across differently spoken by her mother than were it by her father. Tinne Rosenmeier is wonderful in this part, embracing the Prime Minister's overly fussy and officious demeanor while conveying a mother's love for her two children. She is also very good as Gravedigger 1, bringing out the earthy and ironic humor intended for that scene.

Thought the physical production concept exchanges heat for heart, the lighting design by Michael P. Kittel and the sound design by C. Andrew Mayer do excellent jobs of making the contributions asked of them. Alice Fredrickson designed costumes in more or less contemporary mode, excepting the ghost of King Hamlet's garishly green regal robe. Ophelia's wardrobe emphasizes her youth and innocence, while Hamlet's highlights his muscular strength, widening the gulf between them. Gertrude sports stylish, expensive-looking numbers fit for a queen. Fight choreographer Aaron Preusse has staged the swordplay with verve and verisimilitude.

Park Square's production of Hamlet certainly presents Shakespeare's timeless story of moral ambivalence and the price of uncertainty. It delivers the best known speeches, each a touchstone of our culture, and includes stirring action and a powerful performance in the central role, along with several other fine performances. It also offers some interesting twists, such as the change in gender of the Prime Minister. Its physical production is distinguished by creativity and contemporary spark, and its rapid pacing keeps audiences alert and engaged. Those less familiar with this masterpiece will certainly gain an appreciation for it. However, they will be missing some of the plot extensions and intrigues. They will also miss much of the heart that can accompany profound ideas and beautiful language in a great Hamlet.

Hamlet continues on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre through November 11, 2017, at 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets: $25.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Playwright William Shakespeare, adapted by Joel Sass; Director and Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Alice Fredrickson; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Properties Design: Connor McEvoy; Fight Choreographer: Aaron Preusse; Dramaturg: Kit Gordon; Assistant Director: J.P. McLaurin; Stage Manager: Laura Tophamr; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Diekman.

Cast: Kathryn Fumie (Horatio), Charles Hubbell (Claudius), Theo Langason (Voice of the Ghost), Wesley Mouri (Laertes/Francisco/Player), Maeve Coleen Moynihan (Ophelia/Gravedigger 2), Charles Numrich (Marcellus/Player King/Priest), Kory LaQuess Pullam (Hamlet), Tinne Rosenmeier (Polonia, Gravedigger 1), Sandra Struthers (Gertrude), Imani Vaughn-Jones (Barnarda, Osric, Player Queen).


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