Ashland, Oregon, March 31—WHAT TO SAY about last night's production here of Hamlet? First, if you don't want to see it unprejudiced by my thoughts on the production, read no further.
I'd looked forward to it with some concern, because I'd heard that it was in modern dress, informed by an overriding production concept or two, and was directed by Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We'd seen his production of Romeo and Juliet a season or two ago and found it a failure, almost exclusively because of its "concept": the Romeo-Tybalt-Juliet generation in modern dress and devoted to contemporary pop culture; the generation of their parents in period dress. Would a similar approach ruin this Hamlet?
Quick answer: no: but only because the Polonius-Laertes-Ophelia subplot mattered so little in the context of an otherwise very powerful staging and performance, and because the play-within-the-play went by mercifully quickly.
Rauch's "concept" here is to accentuate communication as a keystone of Shakespeare's play, emphasizing the many failures of communication. So we get a Ghost who speaks in American Sign Language (Howie Seago, who plays the role very effectively, is in fact deaf.) We get prominently visible video cameras mounted on the castle walls. We get a body mike and transmitter on Ophelia in her interview-scene with Hamlet, Polonius and Claudius listening in via earphones from another room of the castle.
All this works effectively. At emotional high points in the scenes between Hamlet and Gertrude, for example, both punctuate their speech with ASL: apparently they'd habituated themselves to the language while Hamlet's father was yet alive.
I was distressed at the early depiction of Ophelia, an apparently vacuous twit of a teen-ager, and especially of Polonius, reduced to little more than a sententious clown. In retrospect, though, this emphasizes the youth of their generation and thereby one tragic aspect of the play (the loss of innocence, ultimately an entire national loss of youth and innocence).
I was a bit put off, too, by casting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on women; by the reshuffling of certain soliloquies (as I recall the play); and by the throwaway treatment of the traveling Players (they've become a touring hip-hop ensemble, not a very convincing one, and their lines are very hard to get).
But what remains is a tense, intense, powerful production, one I'd see again. Dan Donohue was a wonderful Hamlet, sallow, keen, meditative, impulsive. His alternation of apparent madness and utter sanity was brilliant. Madness is key to the play and this production, and Susannah Flood's mad scene was magnificentas was Bill Geisslinger's portrayal of the Gravedigger, whose black humor neatly resolves madness and sanity: I've never seen this scene so perfectly represent the center of the play.
Other supporting roles — Claudius, Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes — were similarly strong, both as individual performances and in ensemble. Only Richard Elmore's portrayal of Polonius sagged, in my opinion, and that was because of direction, not acting. The physical production is strong, the ensemble tight, the play — which is after all the thing — magnificently complex and provocative. You've got plenty of time to schedule a visit.
Hamlet, Bowmer Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Ashland, Oregon, in repertory to October 30.