Performing Arts

Nathan Darrow, others create masterful production of ‘Hamlet’ at Heart of America

Hamlet (Nathan Darrow, right) and Laertes (Matt Schwader) do battle as (background from left) an attendant (Roan Ricker), Claudius (Bruce Roach), Gertrude (Jan Rogge) and more attendants Leah Wilczewski and Haddy Wilczewski) look on.
Hamlet (Nathan Darrow, right) and Laertes (Matt Schwader) do battle as (background from left) an attendant (Roan Ricker), Claudius (Bruce Roach), Gertrude (Jan Rogge) and more attendants Leah Wilczewski and Haddy Wilczewski) look on.

“Hamlet” is such a multifaceted work that you can learn a lot even from an indifferent production.

But when all the gears are meshing perfectly, as is the case with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s current 25th anniversary production in Southmoreland Park, it’s a monumental experience.

This critic has never seen a production of the play — or any Shakespeare play for that matter — that so effortlessly finds the sweet spot between the Bard’s astounding language and each line’s meaning.

Director Sidonie Garrett and her cast never leave you wondering what this or that bit of dialogue means. Even if some of the words are foreign to modern ears, their delivery is so imbued with thought and emotion that there’s never a doubt about their intentions.

Seriously, folks, three hours of Shakespeare (with intermission) whiz by in a heartbeat, thanks to exquisite timing, a physical production that flows in almost cinematic fashion and distinctive performances that will keep replaying in your mind on the drive home.

The plot, of course, centers on Prince Hamlet, who suspects that his late father, the king, was murdered by his uncle Claudius, who seized the throne and then married Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. The play has been described as being about a young man who can’t quite decide what to do.

Of course you can’t have a great “Hamlet” without a great Hamlet, and we’ve got one in Nathan Darrow. This homegrown actor (“House of Cards,” “Billions,” “Wizard of Lies”) melds matinee idol looks with his own effective take on the melancholy Dane.

His Hamlet can be moody, bitter, biting and slyly humorous; especially effective is Darrow’s approach to Hamlet’s madness. Does the character’s bizarre and outlandish behavior represent a genuine mental meltdown, or is it a clever ruse meant to allay Claudius’ suspicions?

Actually, both interpretations are valid. Hamlet may be feigning madness, but in doing so he’s courting the real thing. Watching Darrow alternate between these extremes is high-wire acting of a very high order.

But then this production has a surplus of acting riches.

John Rensenhouse has several suitably eerie appearances as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, whose tale of murder sets the plot in motion. He exudes a baleful countenance, an electronically distorted voice and wafts of smoke from his suit of armor.

Then there’s Ophelia, Hamlet’s doomed love interest, who all too often is played as a simpering victim. Hillary Clemens is having none of that. Her Ophelia is a fully-rounded young woman, full of energy and playfulness. Just check out the easygoing sibling familiarity that marks her scene with Matt Swader as Laertes, Ophelia’s brother. Their reassuring normalcy makes her eventual descent into madness and suicide all the more devastating.

Robert Gibby Brand has a field day as their father Polonius, a font of pomposity whose verbal overkill cannot disguise his genuine love for his children.

As King Claudius, Bruce Roach walks his own fine line between is-he-or-isn’t-he. No mustache-twirling villain, this Claudius exudes an aura of ambivalence. Perhaps the Ghost is leading Hamlet astray. Only when Claudius collapses in guilt-induced prayer do we get a definitive answer.

Jan Rogge’s Queen Gertrude is a dim, shallow and sensual woman, who doesn’t want to know what her new husband did to achieve power.

Gene Emerson Friedman’s set offers the facade of a palace with plenty of doors for entries and exits; Mary Traylor’s costumes range from Restoration-era frippery to Georgian formality, but somehow everything works in unison.

Special kudos to Tracy Terstriep for choreographing the wonderfully realistic dueling scene that closes the play.

Onstage

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s “Hamlet” continues through July 2 at Southmoreland Park, 4600 Oak St. Admission is free, but reserved seating up front is available for $25. See kcshakes.org.

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