By Manning Harris
“Poem Unlimited”: That’s how Shakespearean scholar nonpareil Harold Bloom refers to this play of plays, now being performed at Georgia Shakespeare through Oct. 27.
The greatest play, the greatest writer, the most brilliant character in dramatic literature—one has to trot out superlatives in speaking about “Hamlet.” It’s only proper: attention, homage must be paid.
Let’s say right off the bat that without the acrobatic intelligence of Joe Knezevich, who plays the title role, this “Hamlet” would be much poorer. But intelligence is not enough for this crown jewel of characters; neither is charisma. For Hamlet, Shakespeare asks for the actor’s soul, and to play this part, an actor must be willing to probe that deeply. Mr. Knezevich is willing, and armed with the Bard’s astonishing words, by the time he picks up Yorick’s skull in Act V, one’s eyes are welling with the shock of this much truth and beauty laid bare in front of you.
It is Hamlet’s play; but it’s not a solo effort. Director Richard Garner has not only assembled a superb cast, he has put his own stamp on the play. Every director does. And like the priceless diamond it is, the play not only survives, it sparkles and thrills. One example is Kat Conley’s scenic design: it’s spare, stark, and chilling. You know that “Hamlet” famously holds the mirror up to human nature; Ms. Conley uses actual mirrors which force the actors to face who they really are. This may sound simplistic; it’s not, and the mirrors are not overused.
Sydney Roberts’ costumes are modern, yet through some sleight of hand, not readily identifiable with any particular decade or time. Claudius (Chris Kayser) and Gertrude (Carolyn Cook) enter in a blaze of red, perhaps symbolic of Claudius’ murder of his brother. That Gertrude is a sexy, desirable woman, easily attracting Claudius and the late King Hamlet, has never been clearer. Here she’s wearing stylish, Madonna-like boots that are, well, provocative—and they work. The divine Ms. Cook has never been better; she’s mesmerizing in her poetic description of Ophelia’s death by drowning.
Speaking of shoes, Hamlet’s not wearing any (another directorial choice). At first I was a bit put off by this; then I began to see how, in an unexpected way, being barefoot humanizes Hamlet. Behind that peerless intellect is a human being, a vulnerable young man. “The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite that ever I was born to set it right.”
Kendall Simpson composed the music; it is haunting and beautiful. Mike Post’s lighting is jarring and perfect. By the way, if you’d like the plot of the play, Google awaits. That’s a separate essay. Also, I must say I’ve never seen or heard a more understandable “Hamlet.” The players “speak the speech” beautifully, with crisp and fine articulation. They make it sound easy.
Let’s talk about actors. Ophelia is played by Ann Marie Gideon; her transition from sweet, pliable daughter to the terror of Ophelia’s mad scene is truly electrifying. She is pitiable, powerful, and downright scary. With this performance, Ms. Gideon reveals that she is a major talent, with a stunning future.
In GA Shake’s benchmark 1999 production of “Hamlet,” Chris Kayser played Claudius and he is back for a sterling encore. He’s perfectly cast, as is Ms. Cook as his wife; and his crystal clear diction has never been more icy or appropriate. (Comparisons are odious, by the way, and I am not implying that the 1999 “Hamlet” was “better”; it was wonderful and memorable, but so is the current “Hamlet.”)
Allan Edwards’ Polonius is funny and brilliant. I’m certain that Shakespeare, who knew the value of comedy in the midst of tragedy, would have approved. Neal A. Ghant is powerful and warm as Ophelia’s brother and not so warm as Hamlet’s sometimes foe.
Space prohibits me from saying as much as I’d like about the following excellent actors: Eric Mendenhall as Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio (“Good night, sweet prince!”), Eugene H. Russell, IV as Guildenstern; Tony Larkin as Rosencrantz/Osric; Mark Kincaid, who is outstanding in doing triple duty as the Ghost/Player King/Gravedigger; Dan Ford as Marcellus/Lucianus, as well as understudying Hamlet; and Tiffany Denise Mitchenor as Lady Margaret/Player Queen/Priest.
That brings us back to Joe Knezevich. He had a small part (I know: there are no small parts!) in the 1999 “Hamlet” when I think Mr. Knezevich was just out of college. He’s still a young man, and he’s been so good in so many roles that one really can’t say he “comes of age” with his Hamlet. But it’s thrilling to see this magnificent actor at his peak, displaying his astonishing range, and playing all the notes on his instrument. Since it’s a Stradavarius, that makes him a complete reason to see this “Hamlet.” I would not miss it.
For tickets and information, visit gashakespeare.org.