"Hamlet" evokes conflicting feelings, such as you might have if you heard a dirge played at a wedding. Friday's opening of Shakespeare's most iconic tragedy was especially poignant because this production, set in the 1940s with profound clarity and inexorable pathos by director Joe Dowling, is freighted with the weight of all kinds of history.
The opening of this play, about a prince visited by the ghost of his murdered father who wants his son to avenge his killing, was the last drama at the Guthrie Theater in its soon-to-be-vacated Vineland Place home. Spirits of performances past swirled in that ether as well as the stain of the sweat, tears and neuroses of thousands of actors and a community that conspired and dreamed with them.
Nor is this just any playhouse. When the theater opened in 1963 with Tyrone Guthrie's staging of this same tragedy, it became both cradle and catalyst of America's nonprofit professional theater movement.
How can any acting company give a performance that honors so many disparate expectations? It is a show, after all, not a funeral service for the building or a séance to summon the dead who must be quick in that place or even a psychoanalysis of a country led by illegitimate rulers, even as it functions as all of these things.
The actors at the Guthrie exhibit the very even pacing of Dowling.
They just let it be in this stately staging, which is faithful to Shakespeare's words.
George Bernard Shaw quipped that youth is wasted on the young, a sentiment that many great directors and actors have shared about the role of Hamlet. Even though he is a college student, he is often depicted by some stage eminence (all returning students, I guess).
When he first comes out to play the Danish prince at the Guthrie, Santino Fontana, 24, evokes the specter of whiny "Friends" star David Schwimmer. He was sometimes a bit too playful, even raising his voice at the end of non-questions to sound like a valley girl. That contemporary vocal shift, plus hand gestures that explained his words and thoughts, made me question whether he has sufficient gravitas. The issues Hamlet confronts, after all, are not just a parlor game (even if lighting designer Matthew Reinert frames the floor like a chessboard), but matters of murder and of state.
Yet, through his steadily assured delivery of words and works, through his tics and mad antics and through his Olympian feat in so effortlessly tackling the role, Fontana not only banishes the questions, but also does so winningly. His Hamlet is more searching than searing, but that's a good tack; because his lines are so well-known, we want to say them with him. Fontana delivers them as if they are discoveries.
Leah Curney, who portrays Hamlet's love interest, Ophelia, argues for a renaming of the play to "Hamlet & Ophelia." As the spurned, abused Ophelia, who goes mad, Curney does an altogether dazzling extension of her soul. She makes herself totally available to her character in the crucial mad scene, going out on limbs so flimsy that they cannot support her weight. Then she dangles there with brittleness and brilliance.
Some principal roles seemed to lack only by comparison. Matthew Greer's only faults as murderous usurper Claudius is that he seems a bit young for the part and that he is almost too likable. Still, he gives an otherwise muscular performance.
Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, is played by the handsome and fetching but not deeply affecting Christina Rouner, in Paul Tazewell's gorgeous couture dresses and gowns. She is a bit too arch in the role, seemingly unconflicted and without an iota of doubt about marrying the killer of her husband.
In "Hamlet," there is a play-within-a-play that is used to indict Claudius. Hamlet greets these players with the salutation, "Welcome, masters." That is an apt way to hail a raft of supporting players in the production, including Peter Michael Goetz as king's councillor Polonius. He gives us a Rasputin-meets-Karl Rove-style strategist who has given over his children for his career but who does so with charisma and wit to spare. Stephen Yoakam is noteworthy as the player king, holding court with insouciant authority as he prepares to trap the murderous king.
Dowling has done a lyrical staging of this classic, which keeps your attention during its three-plus hours. The 1940s setting is evident in Richard Hoover's neoclassical balcony design (though not in composer Mel Marvin's music) and in the suggestion that Claudius' reign is overthrown by fascists at the end.
Dowling has exposed in "Hamlet" its profound resonances, illuminated like the Guthrie's wrap-around glass lobby. It is bittersweet that that memory-laden building will so soon be shattered.
What: By William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Dowling.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 1 & 7:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Ends May 7.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis.
Review: Joe Dowling's fine, dignified production of Shakespeare's iconic classic is remarkable for, among other things, its clarity and its resonance. The drama features Santino Fontana's Olympian performance as the Danish prince and the brittle brilliance of Leah Curney as Ophelia.
Tickets: $20-$50. 612-377-2224, or www.guthrietheater.org
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390