Chicago Shakespeare Theater. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Terry Hands. With Ben Carlson, Barbara Robertson, Bruce A. Young, Lindsay Gould.
If clothes make the man, then the man in Terry Hands’s production of Hamlet is the troupe of traveling players. As costumed by designer Mark Bailey, the salty actors who conspire with Hamlet to expose his father’s killer are the only performers whose outfits boast any color (beautifully if unsubtly, every Dane but black-clad Hamlet wears exquisite white; reverse it for the second half). Likewise, in Hands’s production, most of the color comes from the dynamic supporting cast, namely Mike Nussbaum as sadsack/wiseacre Polonius and Roderick Peeples as been-there Gravedigger #1.
Though for a Hamlet that succeeds, and this minimal, black-mirrored production ultimately does so, there’s an inordinate number of unsatisfying performances (based mostly on casting, it seems, rather than interpretive choices). Robertson’s Gertrude is more of a daffy glamourpuss than a careful, knowing murderess. Gould’s stiff Ophelia is neither bewitching nor crazy. And in Carlson, you get a Hamlet who looks and behaves like an everyday joe. The reasoning is probably along the lines of Hamlet-as-everyman, but one of the paradoxical tricks of the role is creating a man moody and introspective enough that his family can (at first) write him off, yet so magnetic that we can’t take our eyes off him.
Still, Carlson does what the production does. He gives a clear and relatively sober reading of the text, a text which demands constant revisiting. And Hands’s staging is gorgeous and uncluttered, so by the time they get to the main event—some kinky and nimble swordplay—we don’t feel gypped.—Christopher Piatt