Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Barbara Gaines has staged a HAMLET that captures both the universality of Shakespeare’s language and the equally universal—but also profoundly personal—experience of grief for the title character.
In her first staging for Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater, Gaines has framed the play on Hamlet’s experience as he mourns the loss of his father, the late King of Denmark. The production opens on a mostly barren stage as Hamlet visits his father’s grave in the rain, while Enya’s “I Could Never Say Goodbye” plays in the background. Maurice Jones (who takes over from Raúl Esparza, who withdrew from the production earlier this year) takes on the title role with a nuanced, emotional performance that reflects Gaines’s take on the play. While Jones delivers Hamlet’s famous soliloquies with aplomb, this is not an outsized performance in any way. Instead, Jones mines the many emotional layers within the character. Jones’s Hamlet is fragile, and he simply wants time to fully grieve while it seems that everyone else has moved on.
While the production itself has a sparse set design from Scott Davis, Susan E. Mickey’s contemporary costume designs create a contrast between Hamlet’s internalized experience of grief and the more ostentatious lifestyles of the characters around him. While Mickey dresses Hamlet in simple black attire throughout the play, to demonstrate his mourning, the newly anointed King Claudius (Tim Decker) and Gertrude (Karen Aldridge) wear far more decadent garments. The same is true of Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia (Rachel Nicks), who first appears in a flowing tulle skirt, and of her brother Laertes (Paul Deo, Jr.), who has a highly stylized presence. The modern costume designs and the barren set also convey the universality of Hamlet’s experiences and of Shakespeare’s iconic language. While this is not a particularly risk-taking production, it is one that reminds audiences why HAMLET is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s finest plays.
Gaines has rounded out her cast with some of Chicago’s most talented actors. Larry Yando has a delectable turn as Claudius’s advisor, Polonius. Yando delivers each of Polonius’s many monologues with a dry wit and a crisp delivery that makes clear why he also serves as the production’s verse coach. He wrings as much humor as possible out of the role and also displays his apt understanding of Shakespeare’s language. Alex Goodrich and Samuel Taylor have a delightfully daffy rapport as Hamlet’s rather clueless friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Mike Nussbaum and Greg Vinkler make the Gravediggers’ scene of the evening’s highlights; both actors clearly delight in the off-color jokes and brash truths that their characters deliver.
While Gaines’s production is by no means skimpy, the sleek production design puts Shakespeare’s language at the forefront, along with Hamlet’s deeply personal experience of grief. This makes the production centered quite squarely on its title character, and Jones rises to the challenge. It also means that audiences hoping to hear some of Shakespeare’s most iconic passages keenly delivered will find much to admire in this HAMLET.
HAMLET plays Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater through June 9. Tickets are $48-$88. Visit ChicagoShakes.com/Hamlet for tickets.