The Humanity of APT’s Hamlet
American Players Theatre opened William Shakespeare’s often-produced Hamlet despite Spring Green’s stormy weather at the Up the Hill Theatre this June. A short lived downpour only detained instead of deterred Director John Langs’ masterfully realized performance of this timeless drama opening night for a must see evening at APT.
As acclaimed Langs details in the APT playbill notes, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, above all, merely acts human. Matt Schwader’s nuanced and riveting performance engages the audience because his grief and desire to avenge his father’s death trigger his ever-increasing descent into a horrifying personal chaos instead of an incoherent madness often depicted in other versions.
Hamlet’s chaos almost mirrors that of the woman he supposedly loves, Ophelia. When Ophelia learns her father is ultimately dead, murdered by accident instead of premeditated as Hamlet’s father was, she, too experiences a descent into that break from lucid reality. Langs moves the audience by having Cristina Panfilio’s heart wrenching Ophelia lyrically chant, almost sing, her lines after her father Polonius’ death directly before her drowning.
The audience then views these two characters that might have been achingly in love, married, except for these incomprehensible losses that render Hamlet and Ophelia unable to cope any longer in their royal worlds. Their grief, and then Hamlet’s promise to his father’s ghost that he will redeem the crown of Denmark, motivates the horrific actions preceded by Shakespeare’s eloquent writing of these characters’ musings. .
These musings, including Hamlet's renowned soliloquies, or Hamlet’s words with Ophelia before her father’s murder, acquire heightened meaning on a bare bones stage designed by Takeshi Kata and Andrew Boyce. The scenery appears ancient, yet neo monolithic while magically transforming into the court, a tomb or lush terrain through Lighting Designer Michael A.Peterson’s effects. At a late night hour, the changing lights create larger than life silhouettes of the characters, especially Hamlet and Ophelia, on the set’s backdrop to make their shadows a monumental replica of the actors, and consequently, their emotions.
Staples’ sensual Gertrude played to James DeVita’s at first humorous, powerful Claudius also generates palpable sexual tension. Afterwards, when his crime is discovered, DeVita bemoans his deeds, his desire for ambition, power and love, all equal in his motivation to commit the murder. On his knees, a distraught Claudius humbly asks for forgiveness in repentance while still longing for the ample kisses of the beautiful Gertrude that are generously given on the stage.
Throughout the performance, Designer Alejo Vietti’s elegant, understated costumes combine lustrous, modern materials into period garments simplified, yet shining, lightweight instead of laden with heavy ornamentation. This concept allows Shakespeare’s characters and their words to illuminate the stage. There are fewer costume changes except for Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, where Staples wears gorgeous gowns the audience can view closely when sitting on the center right aisle of the theater.
Players also parade up and down theatre's center aisle steps in another vivid scene that will resonate in memory for years, when the actors descend for the burial of the drowned Ophelia. Langs’ cast carries Panfilio on a flat bier hoisted by ropes that are then literally released into “the ground” below stage level to recreate an actual grave site, and the audience grieves in reverence.
Before this, tiny details such as Ophelia carrying rocks instead of the usual herbs and flowers in one scene directly before her death, when Panfilio crosses her bosom with every rock, placing them next to her kneeling body, breaks the audience’s heart. Tender father-daughter scenes in the first act previous to Ophelia’s lamentations sets up this sorrowful humanity unraveling on stage, a foreshadowing for all Shakespeare’s characters in the script. As the three-hour plus tragedy draws to a close with a compelling duel of swords and words, a deeply moving Laertes, Ophelia’s brother played by Eric Parks, and Hamlet also grieve their multiple losses and seek forgiveness from each other before their last breaths.
The combination of these theatrical elements, carefully crafted by gifted APT actors that Langs wills into these magnetic performances, including the supporting cast completed by the Milwaukee Rep's long time actor James Pickering, make APT’s Hamlet more than memorable. This play moves quickly under an eventually star-studded night sky, focusing on the magnificent human drama, inevitably fallible characters. Which ultimately mesmerizes the audience into believing neither Hamlet or Ophelia were actually mad, only stricken with unbearable and uncontrollable grief that spirals into multiple losses with tragic results. An evening of human complications where these storied emotions were strewn over the stage and the theatre into a marvelous production. And then enlightens the audience to what can and could happen while attempting to accept the joys or sorrows that accompany the struggles during any one lifetime.
American Players Theatre present William Shakepeare’s Hamlet at Up the Hill Theatre throughout the 2013 season, so please check the website for schedules, special events and ticket information by clicking the link to the left. by Peggy Sue Dunigan