Arlene Schulman, the articulate and industrious director of Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s vibrant new production of “Hamlet,” has compared the play to a “caged leopard” that paces and searches, ready to leap given the slightest opportunity. That’s a perfect way to describe Hamlet himself. The title character is portrayed with a prowling, lithe, snarling obsessiveness by Adam Meredith.
This is not Hamlet as grand protagonist. He is not the embodiment of all that is noble. He does not exude the stage-dominating gravitas that we often associate with the great men who tackle this great role. This Hamlet is brash, petulant and a bit of a whiner. He is tousled and desperate, grasping at straws, fidgeting with excess energy. He is a man bent upon seeking revenge, yes, but he is also a showman — preoccupied with the artifice and allure of the stage — who relishes the thrill of the chase. I can imagine that he’s always been a little “off” socially, even before he learned of the death of his father. He might be in line to be king, but I don’t think he’d ever get elected student body president at Clovis West High School.
Meredith is fierce and compelling. He’s just one of the reasons that I really, really like this “Hamlet.”
The production might annoy some purists. East Coast-based Schulman, who is incorporating it into her master’s thesis, has reimagined a scenario in which the two major women characters are active co-conspirators in the play. Ophelia (a delicate but effectively feisty Taylor Harris) is very much in on Hamlet’s scheme to expose his father’s murder. And it’s suggested that Queen Gertrude (Jennifer Hurd-Peterson, regal yet plagued by self-doubt) was a willing participant in that death.
The implication that Ophelia is in cahoots with Hamlet really shifts the tenor of the play. In this version, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy is transformed into almost a duet, with Hamlet addressing most of it directly to Ophelia. It’s implied that Ophelia’s madness at the end of her life is quite possibly feigned, mirroring Hamlet’s own “amatuer sleuth” disguise. Also implied is that Getrude has an active hand in Ophelia’s death. What’s a little more blood on her hands? (Both she and Claudius are dressed in vivid red matching ensembles, just two of Debora Bolen’s strikingly impressive costumes.)
Although I’m not sure I totally understand the Hamlet-Ophelia conspirator premise — is Hamlet’s taunting of her merely part of the “show,” or is he just truly mean? — I was intrigued throughout. Same with Gertrude’s alleged complicity. Hurd-Peterson, playing hard yet breakable, captures the character’s double-edged mindset. Even her weeping seems extravagantly forced, as if she’s still performing in her own little drama. Which, come to think of it, applies to almost every major character in this production, with the possible exception of the sturdy Claudius (Jay Patrick Parks, blustery and solid), who seems almost like a simplistic two-bit thug compared to the machinations of everyone else.
The production itself is lively and at times beautifully directed. (I love the opening moments when the Ghost, played by an imposing Michael Peterson sheathed head to toe in a shimmery silver knight costume that makes him look like Sir Nike, towers above the audience on the tallest part of the castle set, itself framed by even taller trees behind.) Schulman has a keen eye for positioning actors in relation to each other, such as in the scene between Hamlet, on his knees like a supplicant child, and the towering Ghost.
Matt Otstot is well-cast as a vengeful Laertes, and Stephen Torres exudes faithfulness as the solid Horatio.
The overall fluency of language and comfort level of the actors, even the less experienced ones, far exceeds Woodward Shakespeare’s last production of “Twelfth Night.” I found myself thoroughly enjoying, for example, the sometimes rough-hewn stage presence of Hal Bolen, who plays the befuddled Polonius. While Bolen didn’t always have the smoothest delivery on opening night, his words felt earthy and real. (And when he pops up later as the gravedigger, his Cockney-like inflection effectively distinguished him from Polonius.)
Technically speaking, the production is much better lighted than the disappointingly dim “Twelfth Night,” thanks to a new set of lights. Unfortunately, the dimmer board had not arrived for the opening night performance, but the audience was assured that the equipment should be in place for Friday’s performance. I’m sure that once the increased artistic capabilities of the lights are utilized, the production will grow even more in terms of nuance.
A warning, ahem, about the running time: “Hamlet” is a long play, no question about it. With two brief intermissions, this production clocks in at nearly three hours and 15 minutes. Some directors chop the show to bits because of a concern about attention spans, but such drastic surgery can harm the patient more than it helps. While I do think this “Hamlet” could be tightened up a bit, your mindset probably should be: You’re in for a long haul, and it’s worth it.