Hampshire Shakespeare stages intimate 'Hamlet'
By Eric Sean Weld
HADLEY - After 400 years and hundreds upon hundreds of productions in multiple languages, settings and budgets, what can a theater
company today do to add its own bent to the world's most famous play in the English language?
Hamlet, William Shakespeare's timeless story of moral conflict and human greed, has been set to music and to Hollywood
celluloid featuring our favorite movie stars. It has been committed to audiotape, recast in children's books, stripped
down for Cliff Notes and wrung for an endless succession of spinoff material. Of course, all the while, stage productions
simple and sensational continue to portray the story of the emotionally tortured Danish prince, each with its own
What's special about the Hampshire Shakespeare Company's production of ''Hamlet,'' which continues Wednesday through
Sunday at the Hartsbrook School on Bay Road in Hadley, is its honesty and the direct intimacy the company creates with
Using a minimal stage structure of simulated castle stone amid the vast grassy fields of the school's grounds, the
players change costumes, sets and characters and exit and enter within full view of spectators, while interacting with
them on occasion.
The result is a welcome, open acknowledgment that a dramatic telling is in process and an invitation to witness not
only the story's unfolding, but the act of telling it.
The audience becomes part of the production.
The lo-tech stage setting also adds an aroma of authenticity to the production. The 17th-century premiere of "Hamlet"
necessarily featured a similar lack of amplified sound. Actors had only the power of their own voices. Audience interaction
and inclusion was also reportedly a component of original productions.
The challenge inherent in the company's transparent setting is establishing characters on a deep and convincing level,
apart from the actors playing them. Here, the Hampshire Shakespeare cast came through once warmed up.
Directed by Benjamin Ware, the Hampshire Shakespeare production wisely leans on the comedic possibilities in the tragic
script, unleashing the actors' humorous sides with exaggerated facial expressions, gestures and inflections. Though the
story is one of death and base human behavior, the periodic comical approach enlivens and buoys the three-hour production.
In the comedic regard, Daniel Kennedy as Polonius, in particular, and Emily List and Hunter Styles as various characters,
including the famously smarmy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, shined it on most effectively.
"Hamlet" tells the story of a Danish prince whose father was recently murdered by Hamlet's uncle (to give the plot away),
Claudius, who quickly marries Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and becomes King of Denmark. When Hamlet learns of Claudius'
debauched act, he is compelled to avenge his father's murder. But as a man of ethical integrity, he is deeply conflicted
over how to set things right while remaining morally righteous.
Michael S. Miller, as Hamlet, struck an optimal balance between an innocent but decent young man caught up in a sordid
plot and a troubled soul forced into an act of moral turpitude. While others successfully jested and clowned about the plot,
Miller maintained the steadiness of tragedy with a genuine portrayal of anger, bitterness and confusion, especially in
delivering the most famous of all English soliloquies (''To be or not to be'') and again in the scene in which he orders
young Ophelia "to a nunnery."
Throughout the play, Miller's Hamlet is an effective dramatic counterpart to Kennedy's riotously funny Polonius, until
the prince inadvertently runs a sword through him. Of all the cast members, Kennedy - even while he thickly laid on the
humor - was the most comfortable and natural in enunciating the bard's Old English poetry.
Ware's editing of the lengthy ''Hamlet'' script is efficient and smooth, allowing the remaining dialogue to propel the
story while retaining the depth of the thematic material.
Hampshire Shakespeare, which was founded in 1989, last performed ''Hamlet'' in 1994, and has produced 27 Shakespeare
plays in its Shakespeare Under the Stars series.
The outdoor setting, against the bucolic backdrop of the Mount Holyoke Range, with cows feeding in an adjacent field,
is one more ingredient that distinguishes this ''Hamlet'' from hundreds of others.
Performances Wednesday through Sunday take place at 7 p.m. at The Hartsbrook School. Tickets are $15 for adults,
$10 for students/seniors, $6 for children.
For group sales and ticket information, visit www.hampshireshakespeare.org or call 548-8118.