Tall Tales: “Hamlet,” Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Scene from "Hamlet," by Jen Koskinen, courtesy of Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Tall Tales: “Hamlet,” Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Shakespeare’s  signature tragedy “Hamlet” is now playing at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (through February 23). Our regular contributor Mark Stevens raves   – though not like “Hamlet.” To buy or not to buy tickets appears to be a foolish question. Purchase here.


What are we going to do with you, Prince Hamlet? You’ve hung around for more than four centuries now and we’re still trying to get our head around your demons. As Dan Sullivan points out in his excellent story about The Denver Center Theater Company’s production in the DCPA theater program, “Hamlet” has many imperfections. Writes Sullivan: “The plot is pinned together like a muslin costume; the time sequences don’t jibe; the characterizations are inconsistent.”

Aubrey Deeker as "Hamlet." Image by Jen Koskinen, courtesy of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Aubrey Deeker as “Hamlet.” Image by Jen Koskinen, courtesy of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

And yet we love it. Ideas about life and death jam packed into a thriller about revenge, power, life, death, the soul and so on. And on. Themes and motifs abound.

You’ll either have a yearning to settle in with the chaos — or you won’t. “Hamlet” requires a bit of a commitment, but what Shakespeare does not? Plus, it’s a bit of a fun parlor game to spot the song and book titles spawned by this script—Infinite Jest, Murder Most Foul, Outrageous Fortune, North by Northwest. 

My job is to give you reasons to go see this staging and here they are.

For starters, Aubrey Deeker. This guy is good. Loose, nimble, quick, precise, assertive, angry, warm and, of course, a bit crazy. He moves around the stage like a dancer. I got flashes of early Christopher Walken (before he became a caricature of himself). Deeker nails every moment, savors each word and connects to the back rows. Hamlet is the walking, brooding definition of “multi-faceted” and Deeker gives us solid insights from all perspectives. During “The Speech,” Deeker’s feet are nailed to the floor and the directing here (by Kent Thompson) gives Hamlet’s most famous comments about fate and life a casual, off-hand air that added weight. Just another spontaneous bit of introspection. Anyway, Deeker’s work is quite a feat.

The second reason is the set. I don’t quite understand the selection of pre-World War I as the time period to set this production (just seems so random), but I loved this muscular, towering set with the stone walls of Elsinore and the decapitated bust sitting in crumbles of concrete dust. The wall is fronted by metal scaffolds and two long horizontal ramps that give room for the action and expand the space vertically. Fast-moving curtains throw us from outdoors to indoors like flipping a coin. The moveable parts of the staging (a dinner table, a bed, the grave) move seamlessly as the scenes change and, as a result, the story’s energy never sags. Big room, major set. An inspired design by Robert N. Schmidt.

And then there’s the lighting. The lighting? Yes. You are in for a jolt as the ghost of the late King flashes around the theater, scaring the bejeezus out of Hamlet’s friend Horatio and the two palace guards. (Okay, and me.) Since the set stays somewhat stagnant, it’s the lighting (by York Kennedy) that suggests dappled outdoor sunlight on a Denmark plain or a dark room in the castle. Drink it in.

Scene from "Hamlet," by Jen Koskinen, courtesy of Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Scene from “Hamlet,” by Jen Koskinen, courtesy of Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Overall, the cast is sharp and their timing is impeccable, down to the flashing swords. In particular, Sam Gregory gives Polonius a dignified turn and Shawn Fagan brings an erstwhile innocence to Horatio. Some of Amelia Pedlow’s work as Ophelia came off as thin and swallowed-up amid the men, but when she’s terrorized by Hamlet, we feel every ounce of Ophelia’s pain and confusion. Her airy lightness could be on purpose, but I strained to hear a few lines from half-way back. Ophelia is not supposed to be the most certain or grounded character in the show (who is?) and this Ophelia is perfectly flighty and timid.

Yet it all comes back to Hamlet. Aubrey Deeker and the entire cast, as Mick Jagger once sang, spill it over all the stage. It’s a mess and yet it’s also a taut drama. It’s about spirits and inner monologues and yet very much about power and control. Did events provoke Hamlet or did he bring some pre-existing darkness to the party? The internal struggles match the external dynamics step by step. This production doesn’t resolve the question of whether Hamlet is hero—or not. It just relishes the game of trying to figure it out.

Editor’s note: Telluride Inside… and Out’s monthly (more or less) column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent. Mark is the author of  two Colorado-based mysteries, “Antler Dust” and “Buried by the Roan,” both on the shelves of Telluride’s own Between the Covers Bookstore, 224 West Colorado Ave, Box 2129. (The third book in the series, “Trapline” is due to be released in Fall, 2014). Mark is a former reporter (Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News) and television producer (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour), now working in public relations. We are fortunate he has chosen to write theatre reviews for TIO.

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