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Arts

Indy Bard Fest opens with a fierce, expansive production of 'Hamlet'

Brian G. Hartz as Hamlet: To be or not to be
Opening night of Indy Bard Fest at the IndyFringe Theatre brought forward a "Hamlet" that seemed daringly sparing of cuts. Thus, the sprawling nature of Shakespeare's most diffuse heroic tragedy was honored, even if the production is being marketed as an adaptation.

Apart from the modern dress costuming, which soon can be absorbed without thinking much about it, and the assigning of a few male roles to women, the production Doug Powers directs for the annual festival is pretty scrupulous about treating the text fully.

That means emphasizing the large-picture significance of events that are concentrated on the woes of the Danish royal family. The young Prince Hamlet, returned from his university studies in Germany amid a family upheaval whose underlying horror he can only guess at, is saddled with the responsibility for acting upon information thrust upon him by the ghost of his royal father. But the kingdom is threatened by external forces all the while.

Ghost voices anguish of his posthumous existence.
Severely trimmed productions tend to focus on the family drama, as Hamlet pursues somewhat distractedly a mission of revenge. The ghost has asserted that his uncle Claudius murdered Hamlet's father and quickly assumed the throne as well as the loyalty of Queen Gertrude.

The burden of a nation responding to foreign challenges while its weak leader is caught up in defending his private interests is essential to "Hamlet." And if that sounds vaguely familiar, it's also an indication of how much a warrior culture hangs over the play's action, and what in large measure makes this production worth attending.

We have ample time to get used to the looming incursion of Norwegian forces under the leadership of a female Fortinbras, who appears only at the end as witness to the immediate aftermath of the court's annihilation. Commendably, ill portents are signaled immediately in the first scene. From then on, there's a plethora of pronouns to be changed as the Norwegian prince's (princess') designs upon Denmark are discussed, then blunted through negotiation into her army's free passage through the kingdom on the way to fight the Poles instead.

The shock of seeing a princess Fortinbras (Janice Hibbard) in a white uniform coming upon the scene is thus minimal. So too with a fairly gender-neutral Horatio, a much more vital role stirringly filled by Jo Bennett. In fact, the greatest shock I felt with the director's choices is the brutal treatment of Hamlet after he's killed Polonius; under interrogation from Claudius, the Prince is bound to a chair and beaten. It seems an unfathomable interpolation, especially given a performance by Eric Bryant as the usurping king that emphasizes Claudius' guilty conscience rather too persistently. Though explicitly haunted by his deadly power play from the failed-prayer scene on, like many malefactors Claudius should pull himself together and seem less desperate as he moves toward neutralizing his nephew. But lambasting Hamlet physically felt excessive.

Polonius holds forth to his kids.
On to the title role: Brian G. Hartz convincingly moved under the deepening shadow of Hamlet's situation. The forcefulness required was there, but so were moments of reflection, especially in the last act. His teasing of Polonius was vigorous and extravagant, but to the point. You could really feel the method in his madness.

There was something closer to the bone in his "antic disposition" with respect to Ophelia. He conveyed a young man at the end of his tether, too overwrought by his mission to give his mental and physical energy room to prevail; there is little room for the tender feelings that emerge only later. His treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old Hamlet chums now at the beck and call of Claudius, was both penetrating and fun to watch the way Hartz played it.

With Shakespeare, there's a persistent divide between literary and theatrical interpretations. The proof-text in "Hamlet" is the famous soliloquy starting "To be or not to be." It's staged here as a thoroughly serious contemplation of suicide, and Hartz's Hamlet is armed to carry it out. The late literary critic Harold Bloom firmly doubted that Hamlet intends to kill himself; he's rather meditating on the existential dilemma of life versus death, using his own difficulties as the prime example. That's a defensible interpretation for readers, but in the theater it's obvious that Ophelia is overhearing Hamlet, and her burgeoning mental distress is fed by the prospect that her lover is indeed about to kill himself. Her great speech starting "What a noble mind is here o'erthrown" testifies to that.

John Gielgud gently complains in his memoir that as a "Hamlet" director he was always interested in seeing how
Hamlet contemplates assassination.
prospective Ophelias said that speech, but actresses always wanted to audition with the mad scene. This production's Ophelia, Miranda Nehrig, did well with both those highlights.  I was put off at first because Ophelia's initial reaction to her windbag father, Polonius (played dodderingly and foggily with amusing consistency by Alan Cloe) had too much of adolescent eye-rolling and grimacing about it. But she was superb, with flashes of anger in addition to emotional pain, as the performance went on and Ophelia's maturing dreams are dashed. I loved the flashes of clarity amid the blank looks in what we see of Ophelia's mental breakdown; instead of flowers, she distributes Hamlet's love notes around the astonished court and calls them flowers.

I can't forebear mentioning the brilliance of Tony Armstrong as the Ghost (among other roles). Modulating his voice from a strangulated screech to a deafening roar, this was a Ghost without the cliches of filmy evanescence either visually or vocally. Near the end, Armstrong's  beatnik tweak on the First Clown (Gravedigger) was droll, and another of the director's triumphs was the richly comic dialogue between Hamlet and Osric (Rachel Snyder) that follows. These scenes, which blend tension, satire, and ominousness before the catastrophe, were well-judged.

Noah Winston posed a bit of a puzzle on his first appearance, tongue-tied in telling King Claudius what he has in mind. The focus of Claudius' questioning might better be on the usurping king's pleasure in exercising his royal prerogative to say who goes where when.  But this Laertes adroitly displayed his affection and mansplaining tendency with his sister, and when he returns as avenger much later, Winston's Laertes was a steady avatar of retribution, helping to set up the slaughter of the last scene by readily agreeing to a tainted duel. The swordfight with Hamlet was stunningly staged, and the collapse of one major character after another proceeded with deadly efficiency, leaving only Horatio to pronounce a kind of epitaph. Bennett delivered it with great dignity and pain, as the shattered kingdom yields to foreign control. The macro and micro worlds of "Hamlet" have been truly joined.

[Photos by J. Antonio Chapital]









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