As the actors came out for the curtain call, the entire audience rose to their feet, applauding, shouting, whistling — for “Hamlet”?
PCPA Theaterfest has taken Shakespeare’s most-often performed play, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” and stripped it of its Elizabethan trappings to reveal the basic emotions behind the complex tale. The Shakespearean language is authentic, but it is delivered in such a natural, modern way that the meaning and the motivations are clear. The acting, especially that of Quinn Mattfeld in the title role, is superb.
Prince Hamlet is grieving for his beloved father, the king, when his mother Gertrude marries the king’s brother, Claudius, two months after her husband’s death, and Claudius becomes king. His father’s ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother, and this knowledge and the vow to avenge the murder drives Hamlet mad, or so it seems. One theory for his madness is that he has been spurned by the lovely girl Ophelia. That’s a summary to make a long story short.
The play, which ran five hours in Shakespeare’s time, is three hours long now, but this version is so intense and surprisingly entertaining that it never drags. We are familiar with the high drama in such introspective lines as “to be or not to be,” as the struggle in Hamlet’s mind is revealed, but there are many other dimensions to the play. Often the humorous elements are overlooked or obscured in the way they are delivered. In this production, laughter is sprinkled throughout by different characters.
Director Roger DeLaurier says that his goal was to make the play as accessible as possible to modern audiences, and he has done that, especially with the acting and the language. The costumes are generic modern-day clothes, and there is no reference to what era we are looking at. The set is minimal, almost abstract, with mirrored panels reflecting the action, sometimes distorted, as in a funhouse. This was obviously meant to be artful, but to me was distracting. There are some spooky sound effects and blowing fog in the ghostly scenes, with a little thunder and lightning.
Mattfeld makes Hamlet an angry, yet likable, sometimes crafty young man. He builds a strong character as he appears to be going mad, toying with everyone in often humorous ways. The question is, as in every version of the play, whether he is really mad, or, as one person asks, “Is there method in his madness?”
Mark Booher plays the new king, Claudius, and Kitty Balay is good as Gertrude. She appears naïve and clueless, yet the question lurks — was she ever aware of the murder?
Sierra Wells is well cast as the delicately lovely Ophelia, and Peter S. Hadres is wryly humorous as her father Polonius and downright funny in a scene as a gravedigger. George Walker is intense as Ophelia’s brother who has reason to seek revenge of his own. Michael Jenkinson is sympathetic as Horatio, a key confidant of Hamlet’s. Paul Henry and Shannon Peters play Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, school friends of Hamlet’s who are hired by the king and queen to spy on him.
So many of the lines in this play have become part of today’s vernacular such as “to thine own self be true,” “murder most foul,” “Leave her to Heaven,” Brevity is the soul of wit,” and “The lady doth protest too much.” It’s always fun to see where these sayings originated and wonder why they have endured for 400 years.
People who find Shakespeare’s language difficult will be cured by this play. Shakespeare purists may have an initial bit of trouble with this production, but once the visual differences are overcome, the heart of the play will be as clear as ever.
IF YOU GO
"The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark"
Various times and dates through March 2
Marian Theatre, Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria
$15.50 to $37.50
922-8313 or www.pcpa.org