by Matthew Falduto
Photo by Von Presley Studios
Cedar Rapids – All of the most moving stories are about relationships. We want to understand how the people in the stories connect to another. When putting a classic play like Wiilliam Shakespeare’s Hamlet on stage, it’s easy to get lost in the language, allowing the different moments of the play to live alone without connecting them to the story, to the people, and to their relationships. What Theatre Cedar Rapids director Jason Alberty’s production of Hamlet does best is show us these connections, bringing the story to us in a powerful and dramatic way.
First, a brief synopsis for those who are unaware of the plot… Hamlet learns that the King, his father, has been murdered by his uncle, Claudius, who then married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and took the throne. Hamlet assumes an ‘antic disposition,’ or an aura of madness, in order to confound the new King and his henchmen.
Matthew James is excellent as Hamlet. He demonstrates a thorough understanding of Shakespeare’s words (not always a guarantee when community theatre actors attempt the Bard’s plays) and marshals all of his acting prowess to create both an emotional and calculating Prince of Denmark. I saw a production of Hamlet not that long ago, and was frankly turned off by the Hamlet character, who came off as whiny and tentative. James creates a much stronger Hamlet, one who is certain in his plan of action. Even in his moments of uncertainty, there’s a determination to find the right path. James’ Hamlet is one we root for.
One of the reasons we root for him is we see him through his friend Horatio’s (John Miersen) eyes. It’s clear from James’ choices that his friendship with Horatio is a deep one. The work both James and Miersen have done throughout the play crafting this friendship allows for a powerfully tragic conclusion at the end of the show.
That’s why this production succeeds where others have failed. Alberty clearly understands that the connections between the characters are what will draw a modern audience into a 400 year old play. Another excellent example of this is the brother-sister relationship of Laertes (Jason Spina) and Ophelia (M.C. Cole). During Polonious’ fatherly lecture to Laertes, Alberty has directed Cole to playfully mock her father behind his back. Spina and Cole play this moment beautifully, letting the audience into their tight brother-sister bond.
This smart characterization allows for the tragic moments later in the play to truly resonate. Cole shows all of her skills as we watch Ophelia’s descent into madness. Using her widely expressive eyes, she masterfully allows Ophelia to slowly lose her sense of self and it works so well because we saw the fun loving Ophelia in the beginning of the play. Similarly, Spina’s physical performance provides an excellent depiction of Laertes’ grief and anger.
Another stand out actor is Tad Paulson as Polonious. Besides his wonderful delivery of Polonious’ fatherly speech to Laertes, he is also an excellent scene partner for James. The famous ‘fishmonger’ scene is wonderful to experience in the hands of these two talented performers.
Two actors who offer somewhat mixed performances are Scot Hughes as Claudius and Kristin Poling as Gertrude. Hughes’ grasp of the Shakespearean language is not as strong as many of his fellow actors, and in his opening scene I was not certain he knew exactly what he’s saying. However, during Claudius’ most challenging scene, where he shows regret for the murder, Hughes shines, bringing forth emotional understanding. It’s a puzzling performance to review, for it ends much stronger than it begins. Poling is best when sharing a scene with James, who is an excellent scene partner. Their confrontation is a highlight of the play, as James allows Hamlet’s rage to burst forth and Poling’s lets Gertrude’s mask slip and we see another side to her character.
One of the best aspects of this show was the way in which Alberty, a wonderful comic actor in his own right, directed his actors to find every moment of humor in the show. For instance, the ‘dumb show’ which precedes the play which Hamlet uses to gaslight Claudius, is hysterical as a comical voiceover is cleverly used to explain the action. All of the Players (Kevin Burford, Michele Payne Hinz, Dave Mullen, Greg Smith and Adam Kann) are excellent supporting actors.
Rosencrantz (James Trainor) and Guildenstern (David Schneider) do much to up the humor quotient of the play. Trainor, in particular, never misses an opportunity to add a smart farcical moment to the show, much to the audience’s delight. In a tragedy such as Hamlet, every moment to chuckle is welcome.
The technical aspects of the show were very effective. Eric Burchett’s lighting design smartly supported the action and the final lighting cue was beautiful and moving. I particularly enjoyed Ben Cyr’s sound design. The interstitial music kept the emotion present in our hearts as the scenes shifted. Both the lighting and sound effects that created the Ghost (Kerry Patrick) effect were excellent as well.
This is a powerful production of Hamlet, accessible and moving for our modern audience. Don’t be put off by the fact that the play is 400 years old. Alberty’s wise direction and the actors’ emotional performances make for an excellent evening of drama and intrigue.