REVIEW - Hamlet: a Volatile Dane at Irish Classical
Review by ANTHONY CHASE
Kate LoConti Alcocer’s production of Hamlet at the Irish Classical Theatre Company is streamlined and energetic with a boldly robust performance by Anthony Alcocer in the title role.
As you may have heard, LoConti Alcocer has been announced as the successor to founding artistic director Vincent O’Neill at the ICTC. This places even more scrutiny on this production than the play’s status as the greatest triumph of English language drama might inspire.
In case anyone does not know the plot of Hamlet, this is the play in which Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is urged by the ghost of his father, the recently deceased king, to avenge his death. The king’s brother, Claudius, the ghost says, murdered him in order to take his crown and marry Hamlet’s mother, the queen. Hamlet was already distressed over his mother’s hasty remarriage. This bit of ugly news adds considerably to his perplexity. Before the play is over, tragedy will have visited Demark again and again.
Aware that the director had staged a 90-minute student production of Hamlet at UB, I had trepidations that I was about to see something woefully collegiate. Many artists cannot make the transition from educational theater to the demands of professional theater; or once having adopted the vision of educational theater, they are forever limited.
This was a needless concern.
Kate LoConti Alcocer’s production is audacious and ambitious. It does not layer gimmicks onto the text but, instead, delves passionately into Shakespeare’s words.
Most importantly, the storytelling is clear and vivid. The use of the Andrews Theatre, except for an unfortunate obstacle of a structure that dominates the set, is fluid and effective. The paired down cast, in which several actors double in roles, is excellent. Kristen Tripp Kelley and Matt Witten as Claudius are downright perfect. Chris Kelly, who I was sure had been miscast as Polonius, instead creates one of the most satisfying performances of the role I have seen, a foolish man who is confidently self-assured and not a commedia dell'arte cartoon.
Adam Yellen makes an endearing Horatio, and with the Fortinbras plot cut, his reading of the “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince” speech gives the play an exquisite finish.
Anthony Alcocer is a dynamic leading man type. His take on the brooding Dane is aggressive in its physicality. In fact, he doesn’t quite brood as much as he smolders in a manner that suggests volatility and imminent explosion. In one particular aspect this seems to burst beyond what can be justified by the text, and that is in Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia. I found the "get thee to a nunnery" scene to be a peculiar anomaly of interpretation.
This production takes its cue from Hamlet’s line, “The fair Ophelia -- Nymph, in thy orisons/ Be all my sins remembered” to signal a moment of dreamlike reverie that places Hamlet and Ophelia into a fantasy scene of heated passion. The moment is highly theatrical and is the director’s lone extra-textual gimmick. Clearly, we are meant to believe that the prince’s unrequited love for Ophelia is a huge part of the equation here. Why would LoConti Alcocer need to stage this bit of romantic ecstasy? Because Shakespeare did not write any such moment.
In 1905, A.C. Bradley noted that the 19th century reading of Hamlet as a love story between the prince and Ophelia, scuttled by a plot of revenge, is unsupported by Shakespeare’s words. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is hardly an “absorbing passion,” he observed, adding that it clearly does “not habitually occupy his thoughts.” Ophelia is not mentioned in any of the soliloquies. Hamlet does not consider how his rash and unintentional killing of Polonius might affect the man’s daughter. He never mentions her to Horatio. He does not mention her at the moment of his death.
If Hamlet loved Ophelia once, he does not seem to anymore - except in this production, which apparently takes unreliable Polonius at his word.
When Polonius, who is a “foolish prating knave,” suggests that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is the source of his distraction, Claudius, as the only character in the play in a position to suspect the prince’s true motivation, happily entertains this alternate narrative. When he begins to suspect that Hamlet is onto him, he eagerly deploys the fiction of Hamlet’s enduring love for Ophelia as a suitable red herring. Gertrude, innocent of her husband’s foul deed, is more skeptical. When asked if she thinks that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is the cause of his melancholy, her response is ambiguous: “It may be, very like.” Kristen Tripp Kelley’s reading of the line is delicious.
Even ignoring the specifics of this interpretation of the Ophelia plot, or conceding that such a reading might, through casual textual analysis, be supportable, the violence with which Alcocer’s Hamlet accosts Ophelia is bewildering and suggests that he actually is the unhinged menace that Claudius portrays him to be. Hamlet is feigning madness. This Hamlet’s brutal treatment of the fair Ophelia actually is mad. With such hazard growing out of Hamlet’s brows by the hour, I certainly would agree with Claudius that Hamlet should be sent to England without delay.
Outside of this plot detour, Anna Krempholtz makes a pleasing Ophelia, which is all the more remarkable, considering what she is obliged to endure.
Similarly, when we get him away from Ophelia, Alcocer's Hamlet navigate's the character's internal conflicts convincingly. He is very successful in his eloquent soliloquies. Not surprisingly, this muscular Hamlet give us an especially fine, "Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent. When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage," when he elects to spare Claudius' life while he is at prayer.
Indeed, there are many moments of remarkable beauty in this production, beginning with the opening sequence and the entrance of the ghost, performed by lantern light.
The scene between Hamlet and Gertrude in her closet is also fabulous. The physicality of this exchange between estranged but loving mother and son is remarkably moving, and Rolando Martin Gomez’s performance as the Ghost adds to the power of both scenes.
Chris Kelly’s humorous take on the gravedigger is lovely. Patrick Cameron is pleasing as Laertes, Francisco, and Lucianus. Peter S. Raimondo is also good as Barnardo, Rosencrantz, the Player Queen, and Osric. The scenes between Raimondo and Jake Hayes as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very amusing.
Stage fight combat by Adam Rath is thrilling and provides a much-needed outlet for Alocer’s abundant energy.
I admired the costumes by Jessica Wegryzn and did my best to ignore the relentlessly distracting encumbrance of wood structure looming over her otherwise efficacious set. Lighting design by Brian Cavanagh is very good. Tom Makar’s sound design, which includes musical underscoring for many scenes, is excellent.
This production of Hamlet is satisfying on most counts, and is exciting for its pluck and the depth of the performances. This certainly bodes well for the future of the Irish Classical Theatre Company under the direction of Kate LoConti Alcocer.