Modern Hamlet a paradox

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2011 - 6:49 PM

REVIEW: Director Bain Boehlke creates a scenic masterpiece of coherence, but we gain little new insight into the anguished character who has puzzled audiences for centuries.

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Hugh Kennedy plays the title role in "Hamlet" at the Jungle Theater.

Photo: Photo By Michal Daniel

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Bain Boehlke's "Hamlet," which the director opened Friday at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, is a brilliant and frustrating paradox. The director's grasp of scenic concept -- which is prodigious -- rarely has looked so right and comprehensive. Indeed, Boehlke achieves a unity and depth in his contemporary "Hamlet" that renders previous local efforts mere costume dramas. This astonishing achievement invigorates the event, constantly holding our attention and interest.

Boehlke's dark, modern universe leans heavily on technology: Palace guards monitor security screens from a command center and there catch a first glimpse of the ghost in a distant foyer; Polonius Skypes with Reynaldo; Gertrude browses her iPad after brunch in the elegant spa; cell phones occupy 21st-century ubiquity, and when the traveling actors present their play to the royals, a large video screen projects background scenery. Matthew J. Lefebvre's costumes slip into our consciousness with perfect subtlety.

Boehlke's conceit never works better than when Ophelia, lamenting her father's death, hijacks a singer's microphone and addresses a gala crowd. TV screens grab closeups of her face, magnifying the chaos of her madness.

In other manifestations, though, modernity threatens to upstage critical moments -- such as the ancillary drama in an airport bar where Polonius counsels Ophelia about Hamlet. Is there genius in creating a distraction that forces one to concentrate on primary action? Perhaps, but the gambit risks being nothing more than a diversion.

Writ large, that very question hangs over the entirety of Boehlke's virtuosic staging. Does the play itself find room within this remarkable vessel?

Hugh Kennedy's Hamlet never plunges into the depth of aching desolation. "To be or not to be" becomes almost a glib musing rather than a confession of existential turmoil. His moment with Yorick's skull -- a brief, but suffocating, recognition of lost childhood and innocence -- appears an offhand observation.

In dying, his eyes reflect little sense of relief and peace. Sadness, yes, but where is the agony? We long for insight into a psyche so dislocated that Hamlet cannot do what he must do.

From Bradley Greenwald, Boehlke draws a cultured and stentorian Claudius whose anguish surfaces only tepidly. Michelle Barber's Gertrude similarly plays fine in the middle ranges but never grabs our throat with spikes of rage or despair.

Erin Mae Johnson wobbled early Friday night but found her legs by the time of Ophelia's descent into grief. Gary Briggle's Polonius provides a welcome treat with complementary shades of servitude and nobility. Phil Kilbourne beautifully carries the ghastly aura of Hamlet's Ghost, and Brad Kastendeick and Peter Middlecamp fit the Tweedle-Dee/Tweedle Dum characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Boehlke has made this "Hamlet" a personal tragedy. The coda of Fortinbras entering the blood-drenched palace has been cut, and rarely do Claudius' political machinations feel evident.

That's fine. This is the story of a young man searching for purpose in a modern, technological world -- a realm illustrated with sharp images. If only we could feel and hear that young man's journey over all the noise.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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  • HAMLET

    What: By William Shakespeare. Directed by Bain Boehlke.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 9.

    Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $20-$35. 612-822-7063 or www.jungletheater.com

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