For his handsome, new, close-focused production of Hamlet at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC), Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips has distilled and intensified the drama’s stark internals, stripping away affairs of state, concentrating on family conflict and reducing the running time to about three hours (four is the norm).
No wars with Norway. No Fortinbras. A murdering king, a perfidious queen, a ghost of kingship past, a maundering old fool, a garrulous gravedigger, a troupe of wandering players, a maiden driven into mewling madness and one prince hell-bent on vengeance. Plus, of course, the most deathless poetry ever spoken upon a stage.
Candles flare and lights brighten on another splendid set by Will Turbyne. Platforms, steps and bare-limbed trees — all white, black and a hundred shades of gray, as are Heidi Jo Schiemer’s 1932-ish, Vogue pattern-book costumes. We’re either inside a Warner Bros. movie or outside a Torii gate in Japan. Or both. Apart from a shared flair for heightened, stylized motion and emotion, the links between film noir and Japanese theater — especially as either might apply to the royal court of Denmark — are never made quite as lucid as Phillips’ straight-line storytelling. Further lucidity might have come from trimming much of the Player King’s rant and the gravedigger’s more obscure ramblings.
CSC’s core players supply a number of yeoman performances in support, particularly Richard Marlatt doubling as Claudius and the Ghost, Amy Warner as Gertrude and Jim Hopkins as Polonius. Hayley Clark’s Ophelia is mostly affectation, and Jeremy Dubin is oddly subdued as Horatio.
Lifting above the fray is Matt Johnson’s swift, clarified, unaffected Hamlet, whose madness is feigned, whose passion is engaged and whose purpose is inexorable — a Hamlet who can ponder wisdom in three candlelit soliloquies, then convincingly play “to be or not to be” as a mobilized explosion of reason instead of the usual languid swirl of ambiguity.
This isn’t a Hamlet for all time, but it’s dandy for Halloween.
HAMLET, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Nov. 16. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.