Hamlet Bookends 60 Years of Theater at the Guthrie

Photo by Dan Norman

On May 7th, 1963 the Guthrie Theater opened its first production directed by its founder Sir Tyrone Guthrie. The first play produced? William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Widely regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest play and the greatest play ever written in the English language, Hamlet has been a significant play in the theater’s history. Follow up productions marked the Guthrie’s 15th and 25th Anniversaries. When the theater moved from its original location in 2006, Hamlet was the final play produced. Now for the 60th anniversary they have returned Hamlet with a new production directed by Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj. It’s an important and meaningful play to the Guthrie for these reasons, but why should we as audience members, particularly if we have seen it produced before or on film, spend three hours with a play written over 400 years ago? The late film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Hamlet (1996) “One of the tasks of a lifetime is to become familiar with the great plays of Shakespeare”. I believe this to be a true statement, and anyone who has read or attended a Shakespeare play knows that an understanding of his work does not come from one exposure. It’s a testament to his genius that one continues to learn and see new things with every version one encounters. This was my third time seeing Hamlet produced on stage; I read the play in high school, again as an adult, I’ve seen at least 5 screen adaptations, and Count Kenneth Branagh’s film version is among my favorite films. So I’m familiar with the play, but I’ll never stop learning from it. One of the reasons we go to see plays we are familiar with is to see how different Directors and Actors interpret them. This latest staging by the Guthrie is my favorite of the live productions I’ve seen thus far. With a cast that communicates the dialogue in a way the audience can tune into and every production element working together, this is a fitting way to mark the Guthrie’s 60th year.

The great thing about reviewing the greatest play ever written that’s over 400 years old, I feel I can safely dispense with the plot synopsis and instead say a little about the interpretation. One of the aspects that frequently get played with when producing Shakespeare is the time period. To keep producing a play over and over for hundreds of years, you need to find news ways in which to present it. One thing that is frequently done is to make cuts to the play, without them the play can run close to four hours, this production runs about two hours and forty five minutes including an intermission, so there have been cuts, but they are very judicious ones. Some productions will downplay the looming possibility of war, keeping the focus squarely on the internal intrigue. This productions holds a nice balance giving a sense of the larger world, Director Joseph Haj has made excellent choices giving us a comfortable running time without having sacrificed the larger scope of Shakespeare’s play. I got slightly worried at one point when I thought he might have cut the “to be or not to be” speech. He hadn’t, he has simply swapped the order of it and Hamlet’s scene with Ophelia. I liked the choice, it give a slightly different texture for the “to be or not to be” monologue and that is what we are talking about when we discuss interpretation. By changing the order, it effects the actors approach to the next scene. Now Hamlet is influenced by this confrontation with Ophelia as another reason to question his worthiness. When structured the other way his breaking with Ophelia comes after his questioning of himself and thus the rejection comes when he is looking for comfort. It’s fascinating how little changes or emphasizing certain things over others can alter the emotional tone of scenes and change the focus of the plots.

Most actors at some point in their career hope to play Hamlet, Michael Braugher does not throw away his shot. He gives us a Hamlet that moves away from the Melancholy Dane interpretation, giving us an alert and active Prince. He’s serious, in avoiding some of the humorous lines readings we’ve seen others do, Braugher makes the ones he does choose to play for a laugh, seem all the funnier. He shares a powerful scene with Regina Marie Williams, who plays his mother Gertrude, which is a highlight for both performers. Ray Dooley is wonderful as Polonius, he leans into the humor quite effectively both in his sparrings with Hamlet and his pontifications to the King, the Queen, and whoever else he can talk at. John Catron plays Claudius and does a nice job of giving us a character that is more than just a villain, we get a sense of him as King, trying to be a husband and father to a point. It’s nice to see a more balanced casting of out of towners and local performers this time. Braugher and Dooley were brought in along with several others including the excellent Grayson DeJesus as Laertes, David Whalen who plays the Ghost/Gravedigger/Player King, and Anya Whelan-Smith as Ophelia. Along with Catron and Williams we have several other local favorites in the cast Daniel Petzold is Horatio and does as well as anyone can in a role that is basically an observer. We also get Dustin Bronson who was fantastic last December at the Jungle Theater in Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley showing off his comedic sensibilities again as Guildenstern, along with other roles. Max Wojtanowicz gets more mileage out of Osric than most do even with several of his lines cut, he makes his characters presence known in scenes without dialogue. Lastly, I want to mention another local favorite that has a background role in the Nobles, Soldiers and Attendants ensemble; Emily Rosenberg, nice to see our local emerging talents getting big stage exposure. I look forward to a bigger role for her in a future Guthrie production.

Haj has created a very interesting look and feel to this production, making some unusual choices that really payoff. The Set Design by Jan Chambers turns the castle Elsinore into what feels like a concrete prison, which is reflective of Hamlet’s comments to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It has a modern but nonspecific feel. Costume Design by Trevor Bowen also lend themselves to a modern period setting; the soldiers wear black jackets and carry guns, but also swords. For the most part the characters are dressed in what appears to be a 1940’s sensibility for suites and dresses, but Hamlet looks right out of the current day. It’s an ambiguity that works to set it in a world we can relate to while also keeping a sense of another time. The other technical departments that really adds to the overall feel and texture of the production is the Lighting by Robert Wierzel. Along with the Projection Designer Francesca Talenti who creates a unique and creative way to represent the play within the play wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king. Talenti also does some great effects during the scenes with the ghost. Finally, Jack Herrick who is the Composer of the soundscape for the show, who is onstage throughout the production adding his music and sounds to each scene, even providing Hamlet with a recorder.

Hamlet runs through May 21st at the Guthrie Theater in Downtown Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2022-2023-season/Hamlet/

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