"Hamlet" is one of three plays in rotating repertory at Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson. Photo: MSF

Strong Choices Dominate 'Hamlet'

By Bridgette M. Redman

Whether they are aware of it or not, everyone knows "Hamlet." It is so much a part of our lexicon that people grow up hearing its words and phrases and memorize them even when ignorant of their origins.

It is because it is so well known and so enmeshed in our culture that it becomes critical in this play - even more so than in most others - that actors and directors make strong choices. These choices differentiate each production and keep it from being a bunch of famous quotes strung together.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 20th anniversary production of "Hamlet" is bold in its choices. Artistic director Janice Blixt moves the famous Dane and his family's court into the modern era, and each actor has clear intentions and motivations in this most famous of Shakespearean tragedies. It is in the modern setting where Hamlet must determine how to avenge his father's death, a death he learns was murder committed by his uncle who then married his mother.

It all starts and ends with the Dane himself, the title character who is played by Shawn Pfautsch. Pfautsch is an emotional prince, ever caught up in one mood or the next, whether it is sorrow, anger, feigned madness or grief. There are few moments in which Pfautsch lets Hamlet have quiet or simpleness. He is a man caught up in complex emotions, and he doesn't hesitate to express them.

Where he is most effective is in his delivery of those all-too familiar lines. He makes each of the speeches his own, and he makes them seem comfortable tripping off the tongue of a man from this century. They are all internally consistent, part of the personality that Pfautsch creates for Hamlet.

But neither is the play simply a collection of speeches. This production of Hamlet is filled with characters who are intense in what they want and how they go about getting it. Even those characters who are caught up in events beyond their ability to affect are still committed to the attempt.

David Turrentine's Claudius and Janet Haley's Gertrude are a subdued couple, first as royals who are consolidating power and then as guilty spouses whose feelings toward the Danish prince split them in purpose. While together they are the controlled monarchs of a realm not long out of mourning, apart they show passion that arises out of fear - fear of being found out and fear for a son's life.

Alan Ball's choice for Polonius is an unusual one, as he is not the typical comic relief or clown of the play. Rather, he is a councilor who is earnest in his desire to serve a stable state. He loves his children and looks after their welfare in a way that does not seem at all absurd or over-bearing. His advice sounds wise coming from Ball's lips, and he brings the king and queen intelligence that is true if not the cause of Hamlet's madness like he thinks.

Edmund Alyn Jones as Rosencrantz and Topher Payne as Guildenstern are a doomed twosome who are nonetheless authentic in their desire to do service to both their monarchs and their school friend. That they cannot ultimately serve both is no fault of their own nor due to a lack of desire. With Pfautsch, the three establish well that they were once beloved friends, and we see that fall apart as the Wittenburg duo are forced to choose their loyalties.

Brandon St. Clair Saunders, whose voice resonates as Horatio, creates no such conflict in his character's loyalties. Horatio is first and foremost companion to Hamlet, and the two are trusted, devoted friends. Their closing scene is heartbreaking, and Saunders keenly shows that while Horatio may survive the play's bloody ending, he does not escape the tragedy.

Sam Hubbard is the impulsive Laertes, whose disposition is almost always a mirror opposite to Hamlet's. Like Hamlet, he has a father to avenge, a father who was murdered and for whom he wants justice. Even though he plots with Claudius, Laertes remains likeable, in part because Hubbard makes clear that his choices are motivated by honor, and that his actions are coming from the same place as the play's hero, Hamlet.

The Ophelia in this production is a serious, deep one who keenly feels the bonds that prevent her from making her own choices, whether it be with Hamlet, her father or the king and queen of Denmark. Lydia Hiller creates an Ophelia who is boxed in, for she has as much affection for her father as she does for Hamlet, and is torn between the two of them. The scenes between Pfautsch and Hiller are cold, as if they know they are predestined to be separated. There is little of affection and much of challenge and suppressed passion.

Helping to create each moment in this tragedy is Kate Hopgood's original music composition and sound design. It plays as a complex sound track that underlines each shift in mood and important choice.

The final fight scene, designed by fight director David Blixt, is a complex and intense one. Laertes and Hamlet are two well-matched fighters, and they are fierce and quick in their battle.

Jeromy Hopgood's set consists of clean, strong columns, with Diane Fairchild's design throwing lights from behind the column and into the fog that permeates the set.

With a constant attention to stage pictures, Janice Blixt offers a visually stunning "Hamlet" that is heavy in contrasts. Blixt's "Hamlet" works because of all the strong choices that are made. This isn't a carbon copy of someone else's "Hamlet." This is a "Hamlet" mutually created by director, technical artists and actors to create something different that still stays true to the soul of the original work.

REVIEW:

'Hamlet'

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Baughman Theatre at Potter Center on the campus of Jackson College

2111 Emmons Road, Jackson

7:30 p.m. July 31, Aug. 1, 16

2 p.m. Aug. 9, 10, 13, 17

$31-40

517-796-8600

http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com

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