Outrageous Fortune: CTC’s Hamlet

Hamlet is a great way to show off your spine.

Photo credit: Seth Jacobson

Artistic directors usually only program it when they have a surefire actor to take on the lead role and an audience that’s been conditioned to appreciate the Moby Dick of theater.

It’s a show you have to cross off your bucket list if you want to be considered an arts aficionado, and just like most formative experiences, you never forget your first Hamlet.

My first time seeing it in a theater was at Trinity Rep with Stephen Thorne in the titular role in Brian McEleney’s stunning production that felt like it was happening throughout a 10-story building — that’s how grand in scope it was.

At the Contemporary Theatre Company, the current Hamlet on the boards is still every bit as bold in breadth and theatrics, but the setting is more intimate and the speech spoken more carefully as the players navigate Shakespeare’s finest script with what seems to be guttural passion and unbending grief.

The performance I attended had at least one person in the audience who’d never seen a production of the play before, and I’m happy to report that they were in very good hands.

While I admit to spending a lot of time in reviews talking about the trappings of a given play, it’s because so many plays aren’t about getting it right, but about not getting it wrong.  For me, classical theater — especially Shakespeare and his tragedies — are a prime example of this, and Hamlet might be the best representation of them all.

Christopher Simpson and his creative team have restructured their playing space in such a way that it practically transforms the theater. Alleyway seating is one of my favorite ways of watching a play, and the raised platform helps give the production the gravitas it calls for without keeping the audience at a distance. Rebecca Magnotta’s scenic design is simple, but gorgeous, and the staging highlights the gripping head-to-head exchanges that make Hamlet the ideal choice for a production where even the back row can see the sweat begin to form on Guildenstern’s brow.

As the Danish Prince, Tammy Brown is a thankfully active Hamlet. Her soliloquies show no sign of cerebral self-indulgence, and rather than play the Dane the way many others have — with numbness, sullenness and/or angst — she’s continually focused on the objectives at hand. From the moment the Ghost of Hamlet’s father leaves him shaking and alone, Brown is ready to give us a Hamlet who is still internally unsure, but never wavering. That’s not to say there’s only one way to play the part, but this Hamlet’s insistence on the tasks at hand move the play along at a pace that helps it achieve its potential as a real nail-biter. Driven by grief, Brown, under the direction of Simpson, portrays a young man whose doubt is a fuel for his actions, not an obstacle to them. It’s a performance that radiates recklessness, and all the while the actor behind it is in total control of the heady material. Make sure you have a Hamlet — and a director to match — before you do Hamlet. CTC has both.

But about those traps — a big one would be assuming that you can pull off the play with just a good director and a good leading actor. More than one production in New York and London has been dinged for casting a star as Hamlet, and then gathering together other actors who would…suffice. The problem there is that Hamlet is missing for large sections of Hamlet, and you’d better have actors who can keep up the momentum while the protagonist is busy being kidnapped by pirates.

Luckily for all future audience members, CTC has assembled a first-rate ensemble to tackle this behemoth. It’s a thrill to see Claudius and Gertrude brought to life by Matt Fraza and MJ Daly, two actors who can truly do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Fraza hasn’t had a role of this size in quite some time, and I was elated to see him rip into the part with all the tenacity and swaggering it called for, while still creating the most sympathetic version of the character I’ve ever seen. His scenes with Daly showcased the kind of chemistry that helps you understand how the two might have wound up in each other’s arms, and when things start to go awry, Daly’s dagger-flinging glances at him show that she knows where all this is headed.

Daly’s Gertrude and Brown’s Hamlet play off each other without a hint of classical pretension. In the confrontation scene, Daly refuses to let Gertrude be a cowering mess while her son berates her. Instead, she fires back at him with everything she’s got until she has nothing left to fight with, and then her devastation is even more palpable. If you’re going to do Shakespeare, please make sure you have something new to say to us about the work you’re presenting, and if you can, get actors like Tammy Brown and MJ Daly to help you out with that.

There are also stellar performances from Ardemis Kassabian as Ophelia, who, like Daly, resists having her character come across as a broken waif, and breaks only after pushed to it by loss. It was a remarkable thing to witness an Ophelia who is very much alive in her madness, rather than lost in it. Brava for the risk; it paid off.

As Ophelia’s father, Michael Alper was every bit the bumbling aristocrat as Polonius — with wonderfully snide line deliveries and impeccable timing. He’s just one example of the smart choice by Simpson to let the humorous parts of the play be funny — not academically funny either — but actually funny. As in, you really will laugh. In fact, this production happens to feature the funniest Gravedigger scene I’ve had the pleasure of watching. It also put the Act One break somewhere I’ve never seen it placed, and I beseech other people who might want to direct this play to go check out CTC’s and then put the intermission in exactly the same spot.

Normally, Laertes is my least favorite character, since he’s usually played with unbridled testosterone, but Ben Christie’s portrayal of him is much more nuanced. The difference between the young man who leaves and the one who comes back has never been more evident. By the time Laertes bursts back into the kingdom seeking justice, the production begins to let go of its quiet moderation and let loose the glorious chaos.

Magnotta and Laura Kennedy are back — and better than ever — as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They contribute to that wonderful humor I mentioned before, and their performances bring their journey with these two fictional icons to a fantastic finish after a triumphant run of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, also at CTC.

The rest of the ensemble is equally as impressive as its main players. Ryan Sekac nails every single role with the kind of stage presence you wish you could bottle, including the Ghost and the Player.

Small bits of music are peppered throughout the show to give it a sense of uneasiness and discomfort that leave you holding your breath — knowing exactly how all of Shakespeare’s tragedies end, but giving you the gift of hoping for a different outcome. By that point, the characters have become humanized and their struggles don’t seem like something that can only be felt on a stage, which is the best compliment I can give this sublime production.

Whether or not this is your first time seeing the play, you’ll leave feeling as though you’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Hamlet runs through Saturday, November 16 at the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield. For tickets and more information, go to contemporarytheatercompany.com

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