REVIEW: Hamlet

This is the last week to see the Jungle Theater’s modern twist on this classic Shakespeare tragedy

When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the early 1600s, a lifelike skull was the most high-tech prop he had to punch up the drama. My how times have changed. The classic tragedy went modern this past weekend at the Jungle Theater, where old-English language was merged with 21st-century gadgets—to great success.

In a risky gamble, artistic director Bain Boehlke took a page from Michael Almeryda’s 2000 film interpretation of Hamlet and incorporated iPads, cell phones, and Skype chats into the plot. The result was a production infused with intensity and relevancy, one that deftly illustrates how even though hundreds of years have passed since Hamlet’s inception, man’s quest for revenge still rages on.

The plot remains unchanged amid the added gadgets and present-day setting: the king of Denmark is dead, his brother (also his murderer) claims the throne and the Queen as his own, Prince Hamlet seeks revenge for his father’s murder, and all hell breaks lose. And while the technological upgrades make for a more interesting, easier-to-digest Shakespeare production, it’s Hugh Kennedy’s portrayal of Hamlet that makes this performance a must-see.

Kennedy, a graduate of the Guthrie Theater’s BFA program, spins the role of Hamlet into his own unique fabric of cynicism, deception, rebellion, and obsession. By depicting Hamlet as a strong-willed (albeit crazed) man with a mission, Kennedy breaks away from most actors’ portrayal of the character as a gloomy whiner simply following the orders of his fathers’ ghost. Kennedy also shows a great understanding of Shakespeare’s writing through his delicate phrasing and pacing, making complicated monologues and confusing dialogue digestible for the rest of us.

Aside from Kennedy, performances by the other actors fell a bit short. (This was opening weekend, however. Who knows what a few more performances could produce!) Bradley Greenwald shows us brief moments of raw, tangible emotion as Claudius in acts II and III, but otherwise seems indifferent and static. As Gertrude, Michelle Barber is good, but, like Greenwald, doesn’t deliver the range or depth of emotion you’d expect to see from a woman who recently lost a husband, got remarried, and is watching her son go mad. Gary Briggle delivers a well-rounded performance as Polonius, the ever-dutiful servant and father. Doug Scholz-Carlson (Laertes) and Erin Johnson (Ophelia) are both convincing in their roles, especially in the last act when they seek revenge for their father’s death and lose themselves in grief and madness, respectively.

These moments of mediocre acting go largely unnoticed, however, thanks to Boehlke’s carefully crafted world of technology and modernity. Boehlke makes the most of the Jungle’s relatively tiny stage by cleverly rearranging pillars, adding and subtracting furniture, and drawing on the impressive technical skills of lighting designer Barry Browning to depict mood, time of day, and emotional cues. Additionally, the location and time of each scene are clearly described on a projection screen, and whenever possible, digital images are broadcast on stage to emphasize the topic at hand. These added visuals help lend transparency to the play, thereby deepening the bond between the audience and Hamlet.

Whether or not Kennedy’s Hamlet and Boehlke’s interpretation of the woeful tale are what Shakespeare imagined some 400 years ago is up for debate. What is certain is that the Jungle has taken a classic production, added a twist, and concocted a show that’s altogether powerful, memorable, and dynamic—and that’s something even Shakespeare would approve of.

Through Sunday, October 9
Times and prices vary, see website