Ignore for a moment that everybody knows Hamlet and pretend you are approaching it for the first time. Barbara Gaines’s new production at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is one where nothing feels preordained, and nothing is meta. It’s a play about finding one’s way through private grief when you seem to be alone in the world. Before anybody says the opening line “Who’s there?” or we have any indication of something rotten in the state of Denmark, our first glimpse of the prince is a lone figure singing to his recently-buried father’s grave, the only person to leave flowers or give any indication the man has only been dead a month.
Jones’s Hamlet Lives in Each Moment
Before we actually know that the new king Claudius, played by Tim Decker, murdered his way to the throne, we know he’s a sleaze. At his lavish coronation/wedding banquet he openly grins when describing the passing of his older brother and thanking his sister-in-law for marrying him. And Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Karen Aldridge) is no better. She chides him for being sad on her special day and cackles at him in front of the guests. But they have a good reason for putting on a brave front: they’re trying to fend off a foreign invasion, and as of this moment Hamlet (Maurice Jones), has no reason to suspect foul play. He’s simply living in a moment of listlessness and abandonment.
So it makes sense that Hamlet is so excited when a trusted friend tells him that an apparition has taken the form of his father, but he’s reasonably skeptical of the ghost’s identity and sincerity. Jones’s Hamlet is reflective, but it would be unfair to call him a ditherer. His “To be or not to be” speech on the impossibility of knowing what comes after death is clearly a direct response to the ghost. His mistreatment of his girlfriend Ophelia (Rachel Nicks) is an unfortunate outburst caused by her being the only safe target for him to vent his frustration on. At other times, he more subtly trolls his treacherous companions. But Jones conjures sharp sorrow, not just melancholy, during his “What a piece of work is man?” speech, capturing the pain of a person who misses their former, happier self.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Masters Humor and Melancholy
Although the production is nearly three hours long, it doesn’t drag—for this reviewer, or it seemed for the entire audience. While Hamlet does his detective work, there’s a tribe of vagabond players, punkishly costumed by Susan E, Mickey, to keep things interesting. And then there’s Larry Yando’s hilarious Polonius, a baselessly self-assured windbag who provides the convenient explanation that Hamlet is still in love with Ophelia. She’s a pitiful figure, clearly sheltered and timid, buffeted by a domineering father and swaggering brother, Laertes (Paul Deo, Jr.). Therefore, her madness gives actress Rachel Nicks an opportunity to finally let loose, scare her tormenters back, and command the stage, making the moment disconcertingly thrilling.
A Mentor Appears Too Late
Hamlet is fixated on how death unites all living things and gives several speeches about it. The production’s signature and sweetest moment is when he finally finds people who understand where he’s coming from. Mike Nussbaum and Greg Vinkler play two elderly gravediggers who banter philosophy while pushing aside the remains of their friends to make room for the younger people. Nussbaum’s delivery is casual, friendly, and reassuring. It’s the kind of moment, in this writer’s view Hamlet could have used much earlier in the play and is still welcome despite being tragically too late. Set designer Scott Davis locates this world on a black plinth that looks like a sarcophagus. Gaines’s production has a lot of funny moments, a thrilling swordfight, and brutal menace in the person of Claudius, whose meditation on accountability only makes him worse. But her Hamlet is ultimately an intimate examination of sorrow and the destructive consequences of denying it.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Maurice Jones (Hamlet), Karen Aldridge (Gertrude), Tim Decker (Claudius), Larry Yando (Polonius), Sean Allan Krill (Horatio), Paul Deo, Jr. (Laertes), Rachel Nicks (Ophelia), Mike Nussbaum (Gravedigger), Greg Vinkler (Grave digger/Player King), Kevin Gudahl (Osric), Alex Goodrich (Rosencrantz), Samuel Taylor (Guildenstern), Sarah Chalcroft (Voltemand/Player Queen), Callie Johnson (Reynalda), Drew Shirley (Barnardo), Mehmet Aksoy (Francisco), Grace Burmahl, Al'Jaleel McGhee, Kyra Norris Sam Pearson
William Shakespeare (playwright), Barbara Gaines (Director), Scott Davis (Scenic Designer), Susan E. Mickey (Costume Designer), Robert Wierzel (Lighting Designer), Lindsay Jones (Sound Designer), Mike Tutaj (Projection Designer), Richard Jarvie (Wig and Make-up Designer), and Matt Hawkins (Fight Choreographer), Tyrone Phillips (Associate Director)
Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
800 East Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
Through June 9
Running time is two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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