Saturday, April 15, 2023

"Hamlet" at the Guthrie Theater

To celebrate their 60th anniversary, the Guthrie Theater is presenting Hamlet, a special show in the history of theater and in the history of the Guthrie. When Sir Tyrone Guthrie began his experiment in regional theater in 1963, fortunately for us right here in Minneapolis, chosen out of a bunch of cities that applied as if for the Olympics, the first show was Hamlet. It was also the final show in the original building by the Walker Art Center, in 2006, before the Guthrie moved to the big beautiful blue building on the river. Current Artistic Director and director of this production Joseph Haj calls Hamlet "arguably the greatest play ever written in the English language." It's only fitting that this show is on the Guthrie stage 60 years later, along with a line-up of new works and reinvented classics, celebrating and continuing the Guthrie's long legacy. If you've been following along, you know that I am currently in New York City, seeing as many Broadway shows as I can. But what we have in #TCTheater is every bit as good, from the Guthrie's three stages to the newest theater company on a tiny stage somewhere across town. A big part of the Guthrie's legacy is that they have fostered and attracted talented artists who have gone on to start their own companies, helping to create the rich theater tapestry that I've been lucky enough to write about for the past almost 13 years. This excellent production of Hamlet is a culmination of the last 60 years as well as a move towards the next 60.

Hamlet (Michael Braugher) and Horatio (Daniel Petzold)
(photo by Dan Norman)
I'm sure you're all familiar with the tale of the Danish prince whose kingly father was murdered by his uncle Claudius, who then married his mother. It's no wonder he's in a bit of a funk. And that's putting it mildly; basically the play chronicles his descent into madness (or is it sanity?). Hamlet is visited by his father's ghost, who tells him that his death is no accident, so Hamlet plots to kill his uncle/father/ king with the help of his friends and a troupe of players. Let's just say it doesn't go well. It really is a beautiful play, full of drama with a bit of humor as well, with well-drawn complex characters. It's such an important and popular play that many of its lines have worked their way into our pop culture lexicon, including "the play's the thing," "the lady doth protest too much, methinks," "neither a borrower nor a lender be," "to thine own self be true," "brevity is the soul of wit," and my favorite, "the rest is silence." Themes of grief, dysfunctional family dynamics, revenge, mental health, and legacy make it an always relevant and relatable tale.*

Joseph Haj directs this familiar piece with clarity, urgency, and great emotion, moving the story along with momentum that never drags despite the 2.5+ hour runtime. Guthrie newcomer Michael Braugher is an excellent Hamlet. He's so natural, present, and believable in all of Hamlet's many moods. You won't catch him "Acting," he just is this tortured young man. (BTW Michael is the son of actor Andre Braugher of Brooklyn 99Men of a Certain Age, et al, but is a true talent in his own right, having recently made his Broadway debut in To Kill a Mockingbird.)

the new king rocking a suit with a turtleneck (John Catron)
with the ever stylish queen (Regina Marie Williams)
(photo by Dan Norman)
The cast includes mostly familiar faces, and the relatively small 12-person company (plus four actors without lines filling out the world) make for some fun double casting and quick changing. John Catron and Regina Marie Williams are magnificent as Claudius and Gertrude, the former elegantly smarmy and the latter believable as a loving mother despite her questionable choices in marriage. Ray Dooley is a charming Polonius, especially in scenes with his children Laertes (a likable Grayson DeJesus) and Hamlet's sort of ex Ophelia (Anya Whelan-Smith, with a convincing transition to mental instability). New #TCTheater favorite Daniel Petzold is an affable Horatio, BFF to Hamlet; William Sturdivant and Dustin Bronson are adorkable as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (in addition to other roles); familiar local actor James Rodriguez makes his Guthrie debut in too many roles to count; David Whalen is an imposing ghost of Old Hamlet; and Max Wojtanowicz plays the King and Queen's ever present assistant Osric with few lines but countless meaningful and often withering looks.

photo by Dan Norman
The modern set consists of a massive wall of beige stucco-like material, with modern lines and an iron spiral staircase up to a balcony, with a crow's nest balcony even higher up where some scenes take place (scenic design by Jan Chambers). Costume designer Trevor Bowen has created a parade of gorgeous modern yet classic designs. William and Kate got nothin' on Claudius and Gertrude in the fashion department. The pair dons one stunning ensemble after the other (including a matching royal purple suit and gown only on stage for a few minutes); methinks Claudius doth overdress too much to convince people he's the king and distract from his suspicious rise to the throne. Hamlet is dressed in moody black, Ophelia wears a few lovely gowns, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sport collegiate plaids, and the servants are dressed in sharp blue or gray suits.

The play within the play is heard but not seen; we hear the voices of the King and Queen play out the very similar story, the cast looking out into the audience as if watching a stage, while silhouettes of crowns and poison ear drops are displayed on the back wall of the stage. It's an effective and dramatic choice that keeps the focus on the characters as they watch the players. Another great choice is having musician and composer Jack Herrick provide a live soundscape on multiple stringed and percussive instruments, which is always better than a recorded track because he can respond to the pace of the action, and is part of it at times.

Hamlet is a classic play that's done over and over, because its story of family drama and revenge still resonates with us. This 5th production in the Guthrie's 60-year history is a faithful one, but with modern flair. You can see it now through May 21 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, a replica of the original theater built in 1963 with 1100 seats and not a bad one among them. You can also help the Guthrie celebrate at the 60th Anniversary Gala on May 11, featuring a concert by the last Hamlet, Santino Fontana, Guthrie/U of M graduate who's since gone on to Broadway, TV, and film. Ticket prices range from $100 to $2500 for this fundraiser event. If it's anything like their 50th Anniversary Gala, it's going to be a memorable night. See you there!

*Plot summary borrowed from my reviews of previous productions.