PROVO Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is so well-known that even some people who have never read it or seen it instantly visualize the melancholy Dane pondering a human skull and uttering the famous "to be or not to be" line. Ah, but director David Morgan has turned the Brigham Young University production on its head. He begins with the fatal duel followed with the rest of the scenes rearranged into chronological order, and his creative vision makes this a production worth seeing.
Morgan's shake-up of "Hamlet" proved to be refreshing except for a few "flash forwards" that may momentarily confuse those unfamiliar with the play. The final moments of the duel scene open the play, but anyone vaguely familiar with the play comes knowing that Hamlet dies, so this innovation isn't a spoiler. The dramatic impact comes from unwinding the complicated series of events that motivate Hamlet's revenge quest. The final scene is played in full at the end, including the duel.
Playgoers who arrive 20 minutes early will be delighted by a stunningly designed presentation on a large screen in front of the set. Brief written comments and historic visuals beautifully set up the origin of the play and explain the image of the labyrinth as a metaphor for man's, and, of course, Hamlet's spiritual journey. In addition, M.C. Escher's drawings of twisting perspectives are related to the labyrinth concept and inspire Eric Fielding's handsome set. Between director David Morgan's conception and dramaturg Melissa Marie Antuna preplay introduction and program notes, this production provides a rich experience with this complex and thought-provoking play. Shakespeare leaves us questioning the nature and value and consequences of revenge, and Morgan's vision clarifies Hamlet's progress.
Matthew Bellows plays Hamlet excellently with considerable depth. Slate Holmgren is a fine Claudius with a respectable facade and deep guilt. Tracey Woolley presents Gertrude as troubled by her son's behavior and oblivious to the manner in which her brother-in-law has come to the throne and to her bed. Jason Purdie plays the aged Polonius well. Jenny Latimer is a moving Ophelia, and Matthew Carlin plays the unwillingly duplicitous Rosencrantz.
The casting did create a couple of distractions, however, because Hamlet's friend Horatio is played by a young woman in male costume, and Guildenstern is played by a young woman in female costume. Lauren Noll as Horatio certainly does present the image of a friend much younger than Hamlet and does as well as can be expected in this disadvantageous gender switch. Certainly we know that men played all the women's roles in Shakespeare's day, but this choice proved a bit distracting, especially since this Horatio frequently pets and pats Hamlet in a manner that a young male friend would not. As Rosencrantz's partner in spying for Claudius, Guildenstern is played by Jennie Pardoe, who, again, does well enough in a tough role. But one questions what these two are doing together. Are they brother and sister, married, not married or what? Would a woman be called Guildenstern? Would the customs of that period have tolerated this odd couple in the court?
The other flaw in this imaginative and laudable production is rushed delivery. Audience members want to be convinced that the players know what those phrases mean even if they themselves don't understand Shakespeare's language. Some wonderful lines were thrown away.One quibble: The incongruent poster and program cover, which is done in a graphic-novel style with a fractured image of Hamlet with a beard. In this production, Hamlet has no beard and the style seems unrelated to the antique images of labyrinths and the striking Escher-inspired set.
Jean Marshall is a former newspaper arts editor and drama critic with a master's degree in English literature. Contact her at [email protected].