Theatergoers would be hard-pressed to find a livelier, more satisfying Hamlet than the "tragedy by velocity" now at American Stage.
Director Todd Olson's streamlined take on Shakespeare's perennially popular play is not so much an adaptation as it is a powerful, pitch-perfect reimagining for modern audiences. It takes chances, most notably by opening the play with Prince Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy, usually found in Act III, and by time-shifting the action from the 16th century to the present, but it all works. The play remains wholly its author's in every glorious syllable while gaining accessibility.
The set is stripped down to glossy blood-red surfaces on several levels and a screen, behind which at one moment Hamlet broods and on which the next is projected a surreal yet convincing ghost of the prince's murdered father demanding vengeance.
The players themselves move through this moody space with energy and grace, attired, for the most part, in clothes that would be at home in an episode of The Sopranos. There's enough sex and violence here to induce envy in Tony and his mobster pals.
Gabriel Vaughan is superb in the title role. In the service of his character he employs not only wit
and a princely if tormented insouciance but every muscle in his body, especially those that control a wry eyebrow or a contemptuous lip. He is convincingly
mad, morose and manic by turns, always delivering his lines as if Elizabethan English were his mother tongue. Whether murdering his father's murderer or nearly raping his mother in her bedchamber, Vaughan is a Hamlet worthy of the name.
Chris Rutherford's Rosencrantz and T. Scott Wooten's Guildenstern are wonderfully nerdy sycophants and spies. Katherine Michelle Tanner's Ophelia traverses a harrowing path from sweet innocence through garment-rending madness to watery ghost with a vulnerable gravity. As Queen Gertrude, Jessica K. Peterson brings to the role a nuanced depth that makes the common portrayal of Hamlet's mother as slut or witch ring hollow. Jim Wicker plays treacherous Polonius with a standup comedian's pinpoint timing. Julie Rowe, in character as an actor playing a queen in the play within the play or in male drag as Hamlet's loyal friend Francisco, never loses her way. The gravediggers (Wicker and Rutherford again) are impudently, boorishly funny.
Sound, light and stage effects play their roles flawlessly. Chief among them is that spooky evocation of King Hamlet's bloodthirsty ghost. Even the device of delivering news from outside Castle Elsinore via streaming audio from Prince Hamlet's laptop computer works.
This Hamlet is a tour de force. Miss it at your peril.
John Bancroft is a freelance writer who lives in Bradenton.