KCAT’s ambitious ‘Hamlet’ is full of surprises

The Kansas City Actors Theatre production of “Hamlet” is well-acted, unconventional, often audacious and ultimately a bit unwieldy. And long.

Director Mark Robbins has put together a collection of actors who have stage charisma to burn, all of whom seem to be working overtime to make sure we don’t get a generic reading of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the revenge-seeking Prince of Denmark.

Indeed, we don’t.

Staging one of Shakespeare’s most familiar titles in the 200-seat H&R Block City Stage at Union Station allows viewers a chance to experience the sprawling work in an intimate setting, which creates a huge advantage for the actors.

As opposed to performing outdoors or in a large theater, the players get to scale down the performances and create startling moments of emotional honesty.

Handling the title role is Jake Walker, whose unorthodox performance creates indelible memories. Often we’ve seen Hamlet rendered as a sort of 19th century romantic — a brooding, self-dramatizing, suicidal/homicidal narcissist who is infuriatingly indecisive.

Walker tries something different. His Hamlet seems to be saddled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He’s smart but impulsive, rational at times and wildly reactive at others.

This approach does a lot to reconcile some of the character’s inconsistencies and make sense out of his erratic behavior. And even though he’s having his way with the language, Walker is never unclear.

Walker’s work and Robbins’ decision to set the play in an imprecise neverland where digital cameras exist in the same world as pistols and rapiers gives the piece a timeless quality. This could all be happening 400 years ago or in the distant future.

“Hamlet” was written in an era when revenge tragedies were a staple of London theater. This play is less concise than some and more poetic than most. Our protagonist is driven by a primal desire to avenge his father’s murder. His uncle, Claudius, has killed the king (Hamlet’s father), assumed the throne and married his widowed sister-in-law (and Hamlet’s mother) Gertrude.

The fact of the murder is revealed to Hamlet by his father’s ghost early in the play; about three hours later, Hamlet finally does something about it.

In the meantime we see the young prince vilify his mother, torment the young woman he apparently loves, taunt his uncle (and stepfather) by writing special material for a troupe of strolling players, apparently feign madness and inadvertently hurt the people closest to him. Walker makes smart choices and plays them for all they’re worth.

Even a traditional interpretation of “Hamlet” would provide moments of potent humor. But this production makes a special effort to mine the material for its comic potential. Much of that is realized by Walker, but he’s matched to varying degrees by Walter Coppage as the garrulous Polonius, and Vanessa Severo and Rusty Sneary as the dim-bulb courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The comic moments are so successful, in fact, that they loom larger in memory than the tragic events. The death of Polonius, for example, has little effect. The descent of Ophelia into madness, although beautifully played by Diane Yvette, is curiously unmoving.

The final confrontation, in which death is meted out rather indiscriminately among the surviving principal characters, seems chaotic but never very exciting.

Robbins has broken the play into three acts, allowing the audience two 15-minute intermissions when one would have sufficed. Gary Mosby’s effective set, a clever system of wooden platforms and stair units, must be rearranged at times by cast members. Shane Rowse’s lighting is subtle and atmospheric.

Lauren Roark’s costumes are an amusing mix-and-match collage: Hamlet and Rosencrantz wear old-school tennis shoes with white soles, Scott Cordes as Claudius looks a bit like a Soviet general with a chest full of medals, Gertrude’s sexy form-fitting outfit seems right for a hipster ball and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern apparently found their clothes in an old carnival trunk.

The performances are good across the board. Cordes, whose Shakespeare appearances in recent years have been almost exclusively in comic roles, brings an impressive emotional investment to the villainous Claudius.

Cinnamon Schultz’s Gertrude is at once earthy and elegant and emotionally complicated. Coppage is at his well-spoken best as Polonius and Yvette plays Ophelia as a fragile flower in the path of a lawnmower.

Severo and Sneary are precise and amusing as the hapless courtiers. J. Will Fritz has fun in broad strokes, first as a traveling player and then as the foppish Osric. Matthew Lindblom is perhaps a shade too intense as Laertes, devastated brother to Ophelia.

Robbins assigns himself a few choice small roles, including the ghost, and is most memorable as the comic Gravedigger. Kyle Dyck is quietly effective as Horatio, Hamlet’s friend. The smaller roles are adequately played.

This production, even though relatively stripped down, still has a lot of moving parts and they don’t always work smoothly. Even so, it’s an impressive undertaking, memorable for strong work by gifted actors. And Walker will make you see the play in a new light.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.


“Hamlet” runs in repertory with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” through Sept. 28 at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or go to www.kcactors.org.