As we all know, William Shakespeare was a magnificent storyteller. He delved deep into the psyche, motivations, and foibles of men and women. And he did so with great insights and a razor sharp wit. All of that is true in his play Hamlet being staged by Pittsburgh Public Theater through May 20.
Hamlet is a blockbuster play that is widely regarded as one of the best works of theater ever. It contains many common thematic elements including: murder, grief, revenge, betrayal, love, introspection, and even the supernatural.
Lots of Action at Elsinore Castle
The basic story is that Hamlet is the son of the late King Hamlet of Denmark. The king had recently died and while Hamlet is still grieving his father, his mother, Queen Gertrude marries his uncle, the King’s brother, Claudius. Hamlet discovers that his father may have actually been murdered. He believes spies are afoot so he feigns madness until he can uncover the truth of his father’s death. This even involves Hamlet staging a play whose plot closely matches the circumstances of the possible murder of his father. Hamlet climaxes with an ending that would rival any from modern times.
As evidence of Shakespeare’s continuing influence on today’s lexicon, consider some of the phrases from Hamlet that are still in major use: “To thine own self be true,” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” “The dog will have his day,” and “There’s the rub.” Many other phrases in the play will sound familiar as well.
Ted Pappas’ Grand Finale
I had an opportunity to speak briefly with The Public’s Producing Artistic Director, Ted Pappas, before the Thursday night performance. This is Pappas’ last production in that role for The Public. He is stepping down after 18 years as producing artistic director, and 25 years of close association as a director. I wondered why he chose Hamlet for his finale: Is it his favorite play? Pappas said “Hamlet is not my favorite play; I chose it because it is challenging. Hamlet is a culmination of my training, passion, and curiosity about the theater.” He continued “I love Shakespeare and the role of Hamlet is the most exciting and challenging of any in the world. Our company has been in training for this play since I first got here. I’ve been working on this production now for the past 18 months.”
Challenging is the right description. The play is three hours long (with a 15 minute intermission) and the program lists 21 actors. The Hamlet character shoulders much of the load with several soliloquies and emotional scenes, and even a sword fight. The role is played to perfection by the experienced actor Matthew Amendt, who is originally from Indiana, Pennsylvania. He delivers his lines forcefully, with great enunciation and rhythm. His facial expressions and fluid body movements solidify his performance further. He shines in the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy.
Veteran actor David Whalen capably plays the role of the scheming Claudius with both an upper layer of gravitas and a simmering layer of enmity below. Matt Sullivan does a nice balancing act as Claudius’ chief counselor, Polonius, who is seen as a “tedious old fool” by Hamlet but speaks many of the play’s nuggets of wit and wisdom. Caris Vujcec as Queen Gertrude carries out her role in a manner befitting royalty. And the other female lead, Jenny Leona, as Ophelia, shows that she can be even more crazed than Hamlet at one point.
Pappas has assembled a stellar cast of actors, many of whom he has worked with at The Public, and some of whom have strong prior experience in Shakespearean productions. Hamlet runs very smoothly under Pappas’ direction. The play has good rhythm and the old English verse is easily heard and understood. Pappas is indeed going out on a high note. But we shall not say goodbye to Pappas, simply au revoir, until we meet again, as he will return next March to direct Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.
In addition to Pappas directing, scenic design is by longtime Pappas collaborator James Noone. He has designed a simple, yet elegant castle set that functions very well. Costume design is by Gabriel Berry, who has added a slightly more modern update to the clothing and shoes. Kirk Bookman (lighting designer) and Zach Moore (original music and sound design) use their talents to further emphasize certain scenes. The very realistic sword fight is done under the guidance of Fight Director Randy Kovitz. Casting director is Pat McCorkle.
Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Hamlet will be onstage through May 20 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave. in the Cultural District. For tickets visit The Public’s website or call the box office at (412) 316-1600.
Photos courtesy of Michael Henninger and Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.