Theater Review: Hamlet at The Gamm
Wednesday, November 09, 2011
They should step aside for The Gamm Theatre.
Here in downtown Pawtucket, a cast of local actors and a creative as well as notoriously controlling director have created one of the finest, truest productions of what is often considered Shakespeare’s most difficult play.
This is not hometown pride sweetening a much-anticipated production’s relative successes. This is hard-won acclaim. If Gamm artistic director Tony Estrella were swinging a bat, he’d have met Mariano Rivera’s splitter dead-on and driven it hard and long, a flight that we’d all watch with amazement and gratitude.
What Estrella has done is this: revive a 1997 production of Hamlet that launched not only himself as a young actor in the title role, but marked the artistic arrival of Alias Stage, the Gamm’s earliest incarnation. Fourteen years later, he’s reclaimed the part and reunited with Sam Babbitt in the role of Polonius and the original production’s director, Fred Sullivan, Jr. Estrella has put his faith in his director and the high voltage of his personal intelligence to work on the first interior character (also some would argue the first intellectual protagonist) in theater history.
The director's vision
Sullivan’s vision is grounded in the production design. The set--platforms of varying heights doused in red, draped at the back with matching curtains--is a vividly symbolic canvas, a nod to theatrical curtaining, and so unified in hue that one is reminded of the surreal landscapes of dreams.
The mid-20th-century costumes--from military coats and formal suits on the men, to demure gowns and dresses on the women--embellish the space and lend shape to the characters. This, combined with the set design, makes for a rich yet appropriately ambiguous background for what this Hamlet is all about--language and the thoughts that spur it forward.
Beautifully spoken, easily heard
And so much of this Hamlet is both beautifully spoken and easily heard. Every character, both in small exchanges and longer speeches, delivers Shakespeare’s densely packed observations, emotions, and ironies, as though they were the only thing that a person could say. I challenge veteran Hamlet audience members not to discover new phrases in this Hamlet. The knots of language that so plague actors and directors even of the highest caliber have been expertly loosed by Sullivan’s direction and commitment of his actors.
And Sullivan has coached patience in this production. With thousands of lines to navigate in a night’s performance, directors will cut and actors will rush... hurtling speeches and substituting velocity for drama. Never here. And never more movingly than in Act III, when Ophelia (Gillian Williams) reveals her anguish at the hands of Hamlet in the aftermath of his “Get thee to a nunnery” speech. With the slow welling of grief in the wake of this traumatic interaction, Williams’ Ophelia delivers to us the full brunt of her confusion and suffering. It’s a bravura moment of moving humanity, and sets the stage better than any production I’ve seen for Ophelia’s return in Act IV, gone mad in the aftermath of her father Polonius’ murder. Her heart is breaking, and ours along with it.
Sam Babbitt's Polonius: crowning
And to Polonius. Sam Babbitt has developed strongly over his years with the company as an actor of many riches, but again, it is here with Sullivan’s impeccable ear for timing and modulation that Babbitt’s Polonius emerges in scene after scene as drop-dead funny but never clownish. Closer to Beckett at times with Godot-like pauses, then Miller with cutting, bare asides, this Polonius is as fully realized as I’ve ever seen. Masterful and crowning.
Estrella's Hamlet: masterful
But all of this, everything assembled so well in this production, is useless if there is not a Hamlet to inhabit it all. This play is, after all, a probe of the mind, an exploration of thought and deed and where the two cross purposes. To make it work requires an actor who can harness the shifting (and often opposing) moods, articulations, and intents.
And here we have Tony Estrella. Pinched and sneering in the opening scene of his mother’s quick wedding, he is that over-smart, hyper-educated, fast-talking boy who clings to the fringes and pronounces all a farce. Estrella draws the frenetic inclinations of high-strung youth into his opening scenes, and his physical vocabulary vibrates with a mind on overdrive. He’s high-maintenance, almost brittle, but Estrella delivers his early monologues with enough exposure and vulnerability that we draw toward him and hope for his success.
Critics have called Hamlet a true charismatic character, and when the many nuances of his lines get the treatment and clarity they get here, it’s absolutely true. Moping and maudlin Hamlets are unendurable. Heathcliff Hamlets are ridiculous. Estrella’s Hamlet--searingly intelligent and bravely questioning--is a Hamlet you can love because you hear what he’s thinking. In the masterful modulation of his language, Estrella shows us thought after thought, giving us enough time to absorb and identify, before we’re off again.
To be, or not to be
The monologues, the famous seven that many know by ear (if not by heart), are each a summit that Estrella must climb. In perhaps the toughest challenge, Estrella opens surprising insight in “To be, or not to be,” a quiet walk toward the precipice of suicide without a note of melodrama. The near-lack of affect makes Hamlet’s meditation on his own death more real, and therefore more dramatic. When minds turn to things, this is how they do it. There are times, in fact, when the shifts in Estrella’s tone and pace became nearly cerebral themselves. Alone, on that red stage, this Hamlet becomes as close to thought as drama allows.
But there is action, and most of it in Act V: a big, boldly choreographed rapier fight with a revenge-fueled Laertes (the touchingly real Kelby T. Akin), the drinking of poison, and a cavalcade of death at the play’s conclusion that collapses characters onto the red stage like a tumble of a house of cards. The rest is silence, as Estrella says to his loyal friend Horatio, as he dies. And when Hamlet does cease to speak, and the final lines from the compassionate Horatio and belligerent young Fortinbras replace Hamlet’s in the theater, we feel the loss.
For Shakespeare has ceased to speak to us, and again, it is through the remarkable work of the Gamm Theater that we have truly enjoyed it for three remarkable hours. This is world-class stuff. They should print money with this production. They’ve earned it.
Hamlet runs through Dec 11 at The Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St, Pawtucket. Tickets are $34 and $42. Discounts for subscribers, groups of 10 or more, seniors and students. For tickets call 723-4266 or go to gammtheatre.org.
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