Riverside’s Hamlet: "Sit You Down and Let Me Wring Your Heart"

By James E. Trainor III

Christopher Peltier as Hamlet; Eliza Stoughton as Ophelia.
Photo by Bob Goodfellow

Iowa City – Riverside Theatre in the Park is not in the park this year; it’s been moved to West High’s auditorium due to flooding. However, the company has adapted well to the new space, and Riverside’s production of Hamlet, directed by Kristin Horton, retains the quality expected of both the festival and of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy.

Horton begins the play with some innovative staging; in the court scene that follows the initial sighting of the ghost, Hamlet (Christopher Peltier) is first noticed by his absence. All the principals but him are assembled; just as we are about to wonder how he will be brought on he begins speaking from the back of the house, and his confrontation with his family is carried out across the audience. The change in venues actually makes this choice more effective, despite some issues with sightlines; standing at the back of West High’s rather large auditorium, we can hear Hamlet before we see him, and he makes a rather ominous approach shrouded in the “inky cloak” of the darkened theatre.

Instead of dispersing the crowd for Hamlet’s first monologue, Horton has the company freeze as Hamlet weaves in and out of them, explaining the situation to the audience. This is an interesting device that serves to separate Hamlet from the world of Elsinore, and it brings up interesting questions about his role in the play. Is this bitter, curmudgeonly young man an unreliable narrator? Or is he the only one willing to speak the truth about the conniving and scheming courtiers we see displayed onstage?

The setup is a great introduction to a character who has a lot of layers about him, each answer bringing up more questions. Hamlet is a particularly challenging show, for both director and actor, in part because of the very uncertainly and indecisiveness that surrounds its title character. There are too many questions available for prying at the character to pick just one: is he starting to lose his mind, or is he just really good at playing the fool? Does his biting wit serve as substantial political commentary, or is he just an angry young man lashing out at those around him? What’s his problem with women, anyway? Hamlet is a very deep character, and the fact that the play itself isn’t sure whether it’s a melodrama or a philosophical treatise compounds the problem.

Horton addresses this challenge in two ways. First, the text seems to be cut quite well, trimming some of the edges and getting rid of some of the many tangents and ratholes. The heavy bits of speechifying that are still there are very connected to the character’s emotional needs, so the action moves along at an exciting pace and the play does not feel as long as it actually is. But more importantly, Horton’s attention to the emotional realities of the story takes what could easily stray into exaggerated melodrama and gives it an intimate, realistic feel. In this she follows Hamlet’s advice to the players: “suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.” The company’s commitment to naturalism, and the close exploration of the character’s relationships, makes this a deeply touching and very thought-provoking Hamlet. With this approach, characters who seem preposterous on the page can be very sympathetic.

Claudius (Tim Budd) seems to be the most nuanced portrayal; here we have less a lecherous, drunken villain than someone who seems to truly care for Gertrude, though he’s well aware of the sins he’s committed. This guilt threatens to consume him, and as the play goes on and he is more and more distracted from the affairs of state by Hamlet’s machinations, it becomes clear through Budd’s acting choices that this is less a story of political intrigue than a contest for Gertrude’s affections. This calm, crafty villain, whose only weakness is his tender care for his ill-gotten wife, is the perfect foil to Peltier’s wild and bitter Hamlet. Gertrude herself (Corliss Preston) seems a bit uneven at first, but Preston is a strong scene partner and her intense focus helps the character come through in later scenes. Though she seems unaware of the extent of Claudius’ machinations, her love for Hamlet is very clear as she tries in vain to protect him near the end.

Polonius (Jim Van Valen), typically a complete buffoon, is redeemed by his sincere love for his children. Rather than a suspicious, jealous father, he is an overbearing but well-meaning dolt, and his helpless rambling seems cause for pity rather than scorn. It is also clear that Ophelia (Eliza Stoughton) and Laertes (Fred Geyer) care for their father. Stoughton gives a very powerful performance, and her tenderness with Polonius and her bittersweet relationship with Hamlet seem to form the backbone of this production. She also does excellent character work, presenting at first a very composed woman who descends into madness throughout the play. In her final scene, she is simply stunning, taking command of the stage and attacking Claudius and Gertrude with thinly veiled accusations. Geyer is a skilled actor as well, and he is as boisterous and fun in the early scenes as he is bold and vicious near the end.

The tragedy of the piece is that Hamlet’s indecisive, fumbling revenge draws in nearly everyone at court by the end. This is made all the more tragic by the great acting and directing that flesh out the world of Elisnore. Hamlet is an outsider in a world that moves too quickly and is too coldly cynical for him; the only true ally he has in his private feud with Cladius is Horatio (John William Watkins). Horatio is more than just a foil for the audience here; he is a kind, patient man who has the misfortune to see horrible things but the serenity not to overreact. He is Hamlet’s rock, and Watkins and Peltier are well paired onstage. On the other end of the spectrum, Rosencrantz (Logan Black) and Guildenstern (Spencer Christensen), the double-dealing spies, are also well-cast. From when they greet Hamlet enthusiastically to when they bumble off to their doom, it’s equally believable that they were once Hamlet’s friends and that they have now been sucked into Cladius’ political machine.

Finally, Hamlet himself is exciting, energetic, and very engaging. Much of the “antic disposition” business seems to come directly from his anger and anxiety; when he lets down Ophelia as when he leads Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in circles, it is difficult to tell what is put on for show and what is venting about his situation. He seems to be full of paradoxes: when lashing out at the others, he walks the line between clever court jester and overgrown child; in soliloquies, he could be showing off his brilliant philosophical mind or just making excuses for his cowardice. He is clearly pent-up and neurotic, but his plight is recognizable and his passion, when finally activated, is amazing to watch. Drawing on his considerable skill as an actor, Peltier keeps the mystery of the character going right up until the end. When we see him finally discover his determination in the final scenes, it is the end of an exhausting journey of self-discovery.

The design is very good and adapts itself well to the space. Shelly A. Ford brings a few sparse scenic elements to West High, giving the impression of a vast amount of space to play in. David Thayer’s cool, subtle lighting furthers the impression of an empty, endless world, while Lindsay W. Davis’ costumes add color to it, lushly dressing Cladius’ court while setting Hamlet aside in a black cloak.

Hamlet runs through July 6, in repertory with The School for Scandal. For full schedule and ticket information, see Riverside’s website.

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