Are we in the midst of a mini-Shakespeare festival?
The area is currently enjoying two innovative productions of works by the Bard: Compass Rose Theater's "Romeo and Juliet" — reviewed here last week — and Annapolis Shakespeare Company's "Hamlet," now playing at Bowie Playhouse.
Director Sally Boyett boldly delves into the psyche of Hamlet to accomplish a nearly impossible feat: bringing suspense to this much-told tale of the melancholy Danish prince. Boyett places the character in the 21st century, confronting the mystery of his father's death and his anguish over his mother's hasty marriage to Claudius, the king's brother and Hamlet's uncle.
In her program notes, producer and Annapolis Shakespeare dramaturge Kristin Clippard reveals that Boyett focuses this production "around the mind's eye of Hamlet, to take a personal, intimate look into Hamlet's madness and the reactions of those around him."
Over the centuries, "Hamlet" has captivated audiences as they ponder whether he is cleverly deceptive or pitiably confused, kind and loving or cruelly vindictive, sane or mad — or perhaps all simultaneously. Boyett's set design features a thrust extending out from the stage to three rows into the audience — giving the production immediacy and intimacy, and fully involving audiences in that quest for Hamlet's identity.
The opening scene is riveting as flashlights cut through fog in search of threatening incidents reported by guard Bernardo to Hamlet's friend Horatio — a threat soon witnessed by Horatio himself.
Soon the ghost of his father is revealed to Hamlet. In a scene filled with contemporary suspense, Hamlet confronts his father's ghost from the stage thrust, instantly involving the audience in the action.
As Hamlet, Manu Kumasi dominates every scene with his energy, athleticism, mercurial impetuosity and passionate fervor. He brings fascinating spontaneity to Hamlet's soliloquies, making them fresh. His scenes with Ophelia are passionately honest and frightening. Not the usual indecisive Hamlet, Kumasi's accepts his destiny with vigor.
This modern dress "Hamlet" is given added zest by costume designer Maggie Cason, whose creations help define characters, most notably Gertrude, played by Nafeesa Monroe, whose striking red outfit enhances a seductive woman far removed from matrons of classic film versions.
The usurper Claudius, played by Paul Edward Hope, is suitably attired in a dark business suit. In fact, all male actors generally wear dark colors, sharply contrasting with Gertrude's bright attire and Ophelia's pastel tones.
Also serving as Annapolis Shakespeare fight director, Hope brings a detached quality to his Claudius, though he displays warm affection for Gertrude and convincing political shrewdness. Intriguingly double-cast as the ghost of Hamlet's father, Hope creates an enigmatic slain king whose anger stirs Hamlet (although his words were often lost on opening night by the microphone setup).
Monroe's Gertrude is a privileged woman in her prime, content but for her concern about her son. When he confides in her, the revelations about her husband trigger a sudden emotional meltdown.
In his Annapolis Shakespeare debut, Christopher Tully impresses as Horatio, contributing to the production's exciting opening scene and projecting Horatio's unwavering loyalty and strength, delivering a memorable farewell to Hamlet.
Audrey Bertaux delivers a compelling Ophelia, beset by the stress brought by her consuming love for the increasingly bizarre Hamlet. Her innocent trust and gentle patience leads to a heart-wrenching disintegration into delirium.
Ophelia's father, Polonius, is played by George Page, who comically captures his character's parental preaching and delivers a "this above all" speech that is eminently praiseworthy. Double-cast as the grave-digger, Page displays good comedic timing.
Seamus Miller is cast as Polonius' son, Laertes, delivering a compelling portrayal filled with emotional honesty that expresses his devotion to his sister and father. And as hired actors for Hamlet's staged drama, Bryant Centofanti as the Player King and Dianne Hood as Player Queen add fine theatrical elements and timely humor.
"Hamlet" continues through April 13 at Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park, 6300 Crain Highway, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $24, with discounts for students and seniors. Tickets and information: Annapolis Shakespeare Company box office, 410-415-3513, or annapolisshakespeare.org.
Return to 'Swan Lake'
On March 29, Ballet Theatre of Maryland performed its recent production of "Swan Lake" in a special showing at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric — Ballet Theatre's first collaborative venture with Baltimore's premium performing-arts venue.
The event was a major success, with some 1,800 ballet enthusiasts in attendance. As one who regularly enjoys Ballet Theatre performances at Maryland Hall, I found new luster at this venue, where dancers acquired added magic. One in particular, Alexander Collen, was so outstanding that I wondered how I hadn't praised his earlier performances this season. I certainly acknowledge this one.
My hope is that the prolonged ovation and applause from the near-capacity audience will ensure a return engagement next season.