Telluride Theatre: “Hamlet” or “Singing in the Reign,” Reviewed!

Telluride Theatre: “Hamlet” or “Singing in the Reign,” Reviewed!

Telluride Theatre presents “HAMLET: To be, or not to be? The show must go on!” By William Shakespeare; Directed by Becca Wolff. July 21-29, 8 p.m. (No show Thursday July 27.) The following is our review of the production.

Tickets $30 (adults); $20 (under 18), available at FREE for all San Miguel County teachers and students.* RAIN OR SHINE – audience is covered by Town Park stage. Please dress warmly and know that no outside liquor is allowed. Concessions (but no alcohol) will be available for purchase.

*limited number of student/teacher tickets per night email to claim

Go here for more about Telluride Theatre.

Two names never made it into the program for Telluride Theatre’s “Hamlet” – yet Eros and Thanatos act as the eminences grises of the production – with Thanatos, as defined a person’s urge towards death (or self-harm), dominating big time in the end.

Which helps explains why the gravedigger scene was such an important, funny/not funny showstopper.

The show-stopping was largely thanks to the boundless comedic talents of Ursula Ostrander as the gravedigger. Her antics – physical theatre in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin – never fail to hit their mark: she mugged, she prattled, she tossed the bones of the dead around like so much flotsam and jetsam, egged on by her uninhibited companion, Carly Hodes, also engaging and at ease in her skin. The winning pair, variations on the theme of Mutt and Jeff.

That scene (Act 5; scene 1), often referred as “Alas, poor Yorick,” serves two functions: yes, comic relief, since the gravediggers love to, umm, dish the dirt about their line of work. But it also provides Hamlet (Simon Perkovich) with a key moment to confront his own mortality.

Hamlet is forced to grapple with the idea of death throughout the production, but here is the first time when he actually comes face-to-face with what it means to die. Holding Yorick’s skull, he struggles to wrap his muddled head around the fact that even the most vibrant, most important, noblest of people die and decay – as he and others will do before the curtain closes.

Since the play begins with the appearance of the ghost of his dead dad and ends with murder and mayhem (read bodies galore), “Hamlet” is a kind of death sandwich with spicy meat between the slices.

A little known fact: Uncut, “Hamlet” is the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, running more than four hours without an intermission. How different directors trim what they see as fat depends on their interpretation of what’s important and what’s not. Is the play a dysfunctional family melodrama? A morality tale about suicide and murder? A satire of royal courts and courtiers? All present and accounted for in director Becca Wolff’s adaptation, which she set in the 1920s, while winking at “Singing in the Rain.” (That said, we did miss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s buddies, and the main arbiters of irony in the original.)

Since Wolff chose to focus on Hamlet’s interior drama, the famous soliloquies thankfully are not left out. And Simon, who bring a hot red anger to role, delivers them with aplomb. We are talking neon lines like “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Truth be told Hamlet is given more words than any other character in Shakespeare, very nearly 40 percent of the lines in this play – the highest proportion of lines Shakespeare ever gave to a single actor. So Simon gets kudos for merely standing and delivering, his interiority, sullen nature and feigned madness always on full parade.

As Claudius, Telluride Theatre regular James Van Hooser brings grave, if ironic, authority to the role. But that authority is laced with obvious insecurity due to the cruel and unusual way he stole the throne – and made his way into the marriage bed with Queen Gertrude.

And while we are on the subject Susie Steinmeyer seems to have been born to the role of Gertrude. And, as the (real) world turns, it comes as no big surprise the lady is indeed a professional actress (from Chicago). On the surface, her Gertrude is all glitter and attitude, trying to hang onto her high card as a once super sexy woman as best she can. But her character is also pragmatic, grieving her husband’s death, while aware of the need to overtly love his killer too. Her precarious position makes Gertrude so much more interesting.

Tom Shane’s Polonius is a loquacious, bad idea bear, who quite literally shuffles through life endlessly dishing out cliched advice like M & Ms to anyone who will listen. The man drives his kiddos (Ophelia and Laertes) to distraction; his employers bat-shit crazy – until Hamlet accidentally knifes him to death. Then, do we care? The verbal diarrhea has, after all, stopped. (Well yes, because Tom is a pro, confident and impactful in whatever role he takes on.)

Carl McMahon’s Laertes is easily one of the most relatable characters in the play. The rainbow of emotions he puts out into the world – grief, anger, and ultimately forgiveness – ring honest and true.

Newbie (to Telluride Theatre anyway) Emily Hornsby Davis’ Ophelia is easily one of the most tragic (and effecting) figures in this “Hamlet.” She plays her character as a naive young lady who wants to please everyone, especially her father Polonius and her erstwhile boyfriend Hamlet. In the end, the sweet, fragile innocent gets used as a pawn in the deceptions of those two men and descends into madness. And when she does, Ophelia morphs from all pretty and perky into a disheveled mess. She sings bawdy songs (on key and very well), while giving away her flowers – or symbolically deflowering herself. In her dance number with Simon/Hamlet, Emily does a mean imitation of Roxie Hart. We hope to see her soon again – like in Telluride Theatre’s winter production of “Cabaret.” (Hint, hint.)

“Hamlet” opens with the appearance of the Ghost who shows up in front of several witnesses. They see the spirit and discuss it among themselves, so we know from the outset the spirit is not a figment of Hamlet’s vivid imagination.

In Telluride Theatre’s version the Ghost is played by veteran actor Dave MacMillan, all pale and tricked out in suit and hat. He simmers with rage, but is bent on revenge. His pronouncements then lay the groundwork for his broken son’s evolving need. That need then informs (or infects) what comes next: the mad disposition Hamlet adopts; the taunting cruelty he shows Ophelia; the chilly disregard with which he shrugs off his murder victims. The quiet way Dave as Ghost works his evil makes it all the more chilling and the horror that follows, all the more intense.

Written by Shakespeare around 1600 or well over four centuries ago since it was first staged, “Hamlet” seems never to lose its theatrical appeal. Today it remains the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s tragedies – and the most intellectually puzzling of all his plays. Online sources say “Hamlet” has attracted more commentary than any other work in English except the Bible.

Of “Hamlet” a great Russian director is often quoted as saying that “if all the plays ever written suddenly disappeared and only ‘Hamlet’ miraculously survived, all the theaters in the world would be saved. They could all put on ‘Hamlet’ and be successful.”

And why? Because in the end “Hamlet” is all of us who ask the same question: Can we ever truly know ourselves in this life? Because in that “undiscovered country” (of death), the rest, after all, is silence.

Kudos to everyone in the hardworking cast and crew for a noble effort. Costumes, movement, video, lighting, set design all really terrific.

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