WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Shakespeare based "Hamlet" on a bloody contemporary revenge play, out of which he forged one of the most complex character studies in all of literature.
However, as directed by Michael Kahn at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, lead actor Tom Hulce tones down much of the complexity and sacrifices some of the play's depth.
This is not to say the production as a whole -- or even Hulce's performance -- lacks polish. To the contrary, it gleams. And, some of the choices exhibit stunning freshness, particularly Franchelle Stewart Dorn's interpretation of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, as an innocent pawn who hastens her own death after she's convinced of the evil deeds of her scheming second husband, Claudius.
But this is primarily Hamlet's play. And while the Hulce-Kahn approach is not without justification and consistency (if you're willing to stretch), it is ultimately less satisfying than a more probing portrayal. The point of departure comes in the early scene when Hamlet confronts his father's ghost and learns that he was murdered by Claudius. In most productions, Hamlet vacillates over not only whether to avenge the murder, but whether to believe the ghost. Not so here.
As Hulce plays him, Hamlet readily swallows the ghost's testimony and is immediately determined to kill Claudius.
The only reason he hesitates is that murder goes against his gentle, affectionate, playful nature (intriguing traits, skillfully conveyed by Hulce).
This Hamlet doesn't need proof, he needs courage, and he is certainly not a madman. When he recites the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, his voice expresses resignation -- not the deep-seated doubt of someone questioning himself and his role in the world.
Though none of the other characters presents half the challenges of Hamlet, Kahn has assembled a creative cast that delivers a number of enlightened performances. Ted van Griethuysen's Polonius, for instance, is jockeying for position with Claudius; when he runs off at the mouth, he isn't so much a tiresome bumbler as he is a typical politician, given to speechifying.
As his daughter Ophelia, Francesca Buller is a delicate, impressionable girl whose opinions on love and families may have been warped by an overly close relationship with her big brother, Laertes (Jay Goede). One of the gems of the production is her mad scene, in which she smears red makeup on herself and almost everyone else in the room; it's an ideal image for a play in which altered appearances, role playing and mirrors are repeated motifs.
As Claudius, Jack Ryland portrays a figure as familiar in big business as in court, or from time to time in Washington; he's the dirty trickster caught without a backup plan.
One of only disappointing performances is Hank Stratton's Horatio, who seems stiff and undaunted in this regal world filled with heinous crimes.
Although Catherine Zuber's costumes have a period look, Derek McLane's set is more abstract. Seemingly inspired by Hamlet's line, "Denmark's a prison," the set is more jail than castle.
Combined with Howell Binkley's shadowy lighting, it's an eerie visual metaphor -- one that would be even stronger if it imprisoned a Hamlet who was a little more uneasy and a little less predictable in its confines.
Where: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. matinees most Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 10.
& Call: (202) 393-2700.