Peter Brook once said that, in essence, everything in regard to "Hamlet" has been done before. The Moody Dane has been young and impetuous, or middle-aged and worn out. Every Oedipal twist in the tale has been tweaked and skewered. Every concept — whether it's a frantic Mel Gibson rushing around a dark castle, a regal Kenneth Branagh relishing every last word of verse or Laurence Olivier finding the most flattering lighting — has been played out, out already.
Indeed, an audience member walking into "Hamlet" today comes with so many preconceptions, it's hard for him or her to separate previous conceits from the darn play. So there is perhaps greater meaning now in subtraction than addition, more value added (as the MBAs say) in intimate connection — clarifying, distilling and paring down. In those significant regards, Michael Halberstam's eminently watchable, closely held, cliche-resistant and well-spoken new production of the great tragedy, which stars Scott Parkinson in the title role and a veritable who's who of Chicago actors in supporting parts that make up the high-class company of 11, brings much to the table.
In an intimate space in Glencoe, assorted accomplished purveyors of verse deliver lines of which one never wearies (and dispense life-truths that always stand further repetition) just a few feet from your skull. The designer, Collette Pollard, has created a clever wall in the rear, suggesting both the interior and exterior of a castle, and that can be both a backdrop for wedding mood-lighting and a foreboding locale where ghosts walk and mistakes are made. David Hyman's costumes have a contemporary frame of reference but make some potent excursions to the past. Often, the simplicity and immediacy of the communication, coupled with careful text work, make lesser-known riches in the play pop anew. Take, for example, the oft-cut scene where Larry Yando and Ross Lehman, here playing a couple of chuckling, death-relishing gravediggers, are digging Ophelia's resting place, as previously occupied by poor Yorick.
"Who builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright or the carpenter?" the one riddles the other. "The gallows-maker," comes the reply. "The guy who builds things to hang people with.
The things he builds outlive a thousand tenants." Great gag, that, yet it usually gets lost in all the "To be or not to be" competition. Kinda on point with the themes of the play, too. For "Hamlet" is about nothing so much as death. Except maybe sexual disgust.
The gravediggers offer hardly the only such beautifully intimate scenes: Shannon Cochran is, as Gertrudes go, a maternally sympathetic one who figures out her fatal mistake quite early in the play, which makes her mourning of Ophelia come with the emotional logic it so often lacks. Lehman's Polonius is full of heart; Kareem Bandealy's Horatio full of goodness, peppered with a reluctance to risk. Yando's Ghost is so terrifyingly demanding, you see why his wails result in so much death. Timothy Edward Kane's Laertes shows us a fundamentally decent guy wholly discombobulated by events he can't control. And, if you want to see the raw pain of a man wracked by grief and furious with his mother for marrying so expeditiously and so badly, Parkinson surely shows you that agony in his first appearance as a mature Hamlet, a man of an age to know that such miseries usually torpedo you for good, wherever you try to take them.
Where Hamlet goes with that pain brings us more to the significant weakness of the production. "Hamlet" is not, of course, just a collection of scenes that need playing as well as they are played here, but a swirling portrait of a man in action. Granted, he's not the most decisive dude in the world, but, as some of us have found out, to our cost in life, indecision is still a decision, and usually a bad one.
The production struggles, at times, in clarifying Hamlet's trajectory through all these encounters, tracking from one to another in logical, satisfying fashion, making the rules of this world vibrant and clear.
The soliloquies are framed by little swooshing sound cues, which was not a great idea, since it removes these great speeches too much from the rest of the play (in quarters this tight, we could have easily accepted them as part of our reality) and calls to mind radio traffic reports. You don't see quite enough enmity in Michael Canavan's silky Claudius to actually feel that skewering him at prayer is a reasonable decision. But the main issue is that Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia (Liesel Matthews) is underexplored. They seem to have little sexual or emotional feeling for each other and, troublingly, Matthews' Ophelia, who stays too much in the background, seems to previously have seen and processed everything this Hamlet does.
That makes it hard to see why this is not just another day at Elsinore and events so crash and burn for the young lady based on what Hamlet does in this particular moment. This pairing lacks that crucial element of surprise.
The central question of whether Hamlet is feigning madness or headed there for real is also muddy here, vacillating from scene to scene.
Such abruptness and inconsistency is part of Hamlet, inarguably, but we still need a clearer sense of the logic of his illogic. Or, to put all this very simply: This is a very intriguing three hours, broken into three digestible acts and featuring some superb acting, rich resonance and palpable directorial understanding of, and respect for, the play. But Parkinson, despite flashes of great brilliance, has yet to be given the keys that would allow him to sit down behind the wheel, make sure that Ophelia is next to him in the passenger seat, put the play in gear and take us where he wants to go.
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Running time: 3 hours
Tickets: $35-$70 at 847-242-6000 or writerstheatre.org