Always when one speaks of “Hamlet,” one does so with a certain amount of awe and fear and trembling.
The reason is that this play, currently being performed by Shakespeare Tavern through May 5, is an ultimate work of art: the greatest play, the greatest writer, the most brilliant character in dramatic literature. With “Hamlet” we must deal in superlatives; it’s only proper, for attention must be paid.
Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom wrote an homage in his book “Poem Unlimited.” He contends that “Hamlet” is more than a play, more than a “revenge tragedy” or a mourning for a dead father or an outrage over a faithless mother. The play is an invitation to consider a new cosmology. The greater and more interesting truth is that “Something in Hamlet dies before the play opens”; and the play’s real subject “is Hamlet’s consciousness of his own consciousness, unlimited yet at war with itself.”
Only from so enormous a subject—the meaning of self-consciousness itself—and only through so prodigious a character as Hamlet, “cleverer than we are, and more dangerous,” does the play achieve its height, depth, and significance.
If all this sounds entirely too esoteric, relax. Let Shakespeare, who loved human beings with an infinite fascination, “unpack his heart with words,” to borrow his phrase, and take you on a thrilling metaphysical journey. If you focus, it’s better than any Marvel movie, and you will be lifted and moved. By the second intermission, my eyes were welling with the shock of this much truth and beauty laid bare in front of me.
I hope you’re not expecting a plot synopsis; that’s an entirely separate essay, and besides, Google awaits. (Actually it’s a pretty good idea if you’re rusty with the characters or plot.)
Instead, I have good news: Shakespeare Tavern has assembled a superb cast, directed by Jaclyn Hofmann, and they will draw you in, speaking the greatest lines ever written, with adroitness and skill and great heart. This they do for three and a half hours (two intermissions), and time flies.
Let me say up front that Lee Osorio, so memorable as Richard II last year, is now reaching for the ramparts of Elsinore as Hamlet. He soars in this role, and he gives you something Shakespeare asks for beyond skill or talent: For the actor who plays Hamlet, Shakespeare asks for the actor’s soul. Mr. Osorio is willing to probe this deeply. If he catches your eye in the audience as he speaks a speech, so great is his concentration that you can’t move or breathe. This is what live theatre is about.
Here are some actors to whom I feel gratitude for a great evening: Jeffrey Watkins is a chilly Claudius, proficient and deadly. That “wretched, rash, intruding fool” Polonius is played by Chris Kayser, whom I’ve seen a couple of times as Claudius; but Mr. Kayser’s fine comedy sense, even buffoonery, is perfect for Polonius. Maurice Ralston’s Ghost of King Hamlet is sepulchral and as fine as I’ve ever seen this part played.
Shelli Delgado as Ophelia: her transition from sweet, pliable daughter to heartrending madness is devastating; what a talent she is.
Ophelia has a brother named Laertes, and for reasons unknown to me, is played by a young woman (Bridget McCarthy). Although Ms. McCarthy is talented, this doesn’t work. The sex gender switch in this instance is jarring and annoying. Shakespeare created a brother and a sister here, and that’s what we need.
I enjoyed Andrew Houchins’ Horatio (“Good night, sweet prince”), Olivia Dawson’s Gertrude, J. L.Reed and Adam King as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Cory Phelps and Jenise Cook as the Gravediggers.
Other players of note include Vinnie Mascola, Joshua Goodridge, Nick Reid, and Danielle Hopkins.
Shakespeare’s longest play has a big cast.
One puzzlement in an otherwise fine evening is that in Act V, after the second intermission, there was a subtle drop in energy and pace. I have a feeling this was a one-time thing, and I further feel that this cast has picked up even more energy and finesse. I have also heard the company has been playing to sold-out houses, always the best stimulant for actors.
“The cat will mew, and the dog will have his day,” says Hamlet. I have had my say and sincerely hope you fly to your phone or computer and get tickets immediately. It’s “Hamlet”; you won’t be sorry.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.