In the canon of angry white males produced by William Shakespeare, Hamlet is hardest to figure out. Richard III chokes on self-pity; Macbeth buries himself alive with ambition; Lear is felled by the family neglect born of his own megalomania. To identify exactly which of Hamlet's peccadilloes finally undoes him is difficult because there is a handsome buffet of defects in the Bard's dizzying study of a man gone mad from self-reflection. Hamlet's narcissism, vindictiveness, narrow-mindedness, self-indulgent emotionalism, and his appreciation of cruelty as a cathartic sport aren't just features of his personality, they're angry slashes of red paint across a blank slate.
Hamlet the character is a frustrated artist struggling to paint an accurate self-portrait in Hamlet the play. His tragic flaw is an impairment of vision; he cannot see himself in the swirling watercolors of his own crises and so attempts to use those savage colors to validate parts of himself. In pathological bereavement of his father's death, he declares his mother's new husband the target of his rage even before he knows Claudius has killed the king; in both self-hatred and hatred of her scheming father, Polonius, he rejects Ophelia with cruel relish, providing the first of two blows from men that will drive her into lunacy; and finally, he enlists his dear friend Horatio in the investigation of a murder, keeps the fellow completely ignorant, and then dies in his arms, bloody but sated with the tiny measure of fateful resolution Shakespeare offered at the play's bloody conclusion.
In other words, Hamlet is the kind of guy who takes things out on other people. He refuses to become the sum of what his enemies have done to him, yet discovers the desire that drives his daily life is the need to avenge these wrongs. The world of sin and inadequacy in the royal court that is his birthplace renders him a cipher with a title, a reactionary not in the political sense of that word, but in the personal; his identity as a young man is utterly dependent on betrayal. He keeps a finger on the racing pulse of his spirit to make sure the damned thing still works.
And race is a good word to use when discussing Kitchen Dog Theater's new production of Hamlet. Director Toni Dorfman, who helmed Kitchen Dog's superb 1993 Death and the Maiden, returns to slash more than 90 minutes' worth of dialogue off this very wordy meditation on inner violence that was written in 1601 between Julius Caesar and Othello. Each of the eight actors tackles more than one role with the exception of Yo Younger, whose sole province is the conflicted Gertrude. Dorfman and Kitchen Dog have swept the stage bare except for the occasional necessary chair or chalice, in the process presenting Hamlet like a plate of steamed fresh vegetables; to enjoy this pared-down production, you're gonna have to appreciate the taste of Shakespeare's discourse without the spice offered by so-called "director's theater." In contrast, director Janet Farrow of Dallas' Classic Theatre Company helmed a version four years ago that was chock-full of her own florid machinations, like having Hamlet become possessed by the ghost of his father and speaking the dead man's words in a hellish growl. The company succeeded, rubbing the play's raw nerves a beautiful blood red.
But what is most surprising about Kitchen Dog's production of a tragedy known for its brooding quality is what a variety of flavors actually exist in the original script. Shakespeare wrote quite a few laughs into Hamlet, and for once Dorfman and company have emphasized them here not in sacrifice to the play's funereal tensions, but as an artful respite from them. This is a Hamlet that doesn't take itself too seriously, which sounds like an oxymoron until you realize how many subtleties of tone and perspective have been smeared away by artists who bring too many preconceptions to the material. Dorfman and company seem to be tweaking this self-indulgence as they stage a hilariously overwrought The Death of Gonzago, the play within Hamlet that's supposed to reveal the treachery of Hamlet's uncle-turned-father, Claudius (Lynn Mathis, whose scowling gargoyle face can look goofy or imperious without moving a muscle). Chamblee Ferguson, who also plays a smashingly obsequious Polonius, embroiders the brief role of Gonzago with a dead-on impression of that throbbing, deep-in-the-throat lilt that has filled many a theater with the scent of footlight-fried bacon.
Any actor who confronts the challenge of playing Hamlet deserves a silent blessing from audience members before he makes his entrance into the swampy chasm of this character's private hell. Remember, the journey of Hamlet is the shedding of one emotional dependency after another, the expulsion of family, lover, and friend in a search for the source of a man's consuming discontent. Playing Hamlet is like asking a painter to create a single portrait on an endless series of fresh canvases, but taking the paper away after each stroke so the artist must provide the next appropriate touch in a field of emptiness.
Dan Day, co-founder and artistic director of Kitchen Dog Theater, trods the funhouse boards as Hamlet and never loses his balance, even in the peripatetic yearning of those blasted soliloquies about death, sleep, identity, and the nature of existence. Day is disciplined enough as an actor to tango with Dorfman and his fellow performers rather than use Hamlet's confusion as an excuse to wallow in tortured theatrics. He maintains the production's brisk tempo yet punctuates the action with a gentleness that jolts you. Is this a Hamlet who has nurtured some trickle of humanity inside but kept it from himself, the other characters, perhaps even the author?
Indeed, you're tempted for the first few scenes to complain that Day doesn't try hard enough to summon the anguished restlessness of Western theater's original anti-hero; his performance is buoyant, winged, and free of the bellows, squints, grunts, and chest-beating braggadocio that so often makes Hamlet seem like a spoiled brat. As the play progresses, Day gradually increases the volume on what has been a charming smartass undercurrent till it reaches the appropriate crescendo of despair. Some may exit the theater feeling that Day has shortchanged the Dane a certain gravity, but his nimble, dapper restraint feels like a slow sigh of sadness where some of us feared a hot blast of spleen to the face. It's a welcome substitute.
Likewise, Kitchen Dog Theater's Hamlet is a clear-eyed affirmation, not a revelation; its very sane account of classical insanity constitutes a fresh approach in a play as endlessly reinvented as this one. Maybe the most revolutionary Hamlet is the most approachable--a big-hearted fellow who poisons the unexpected strikes of his stinger with a bottomless well of heartbreak.
Hamlet runs through November 3. Call 871-
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