The season finale for Princeton’s McCarter Stage Company is a pocket-size “Hamlet” performed by just eight actors under the pointed and oddly structured direction of Daniel Fish. Visually, this dumbed-down take on the timeless tragedy is stripped of courtly design and manners. Sneakers, sweaters and jeans are the order of the day, and the spacious set looks like a school cafeteria with its folding chairs, collapsible tables and high sterile walls.
Granted, there is no one way or right way to perform Shakespeare’s masterpiece, and directors the world over have displayed a multitude of ideas, from Renaissance and Edwardian settings to rehearsal togs. Fortunately, the majority of the players here are superbly well suited to their roles, rising above the production’s decidedly quirky physical limitations.
Rob Campbell is a virile Danish prince, and he settles into the role with athletic vigor. His Hamlet is one of quick intellect and sudden fury. He also phrases the well-worn soliloquies with a keen sense of the Bard’s poetic structure.
The fair Ophelia of Carrie Preston is sweetly delicate and willowy, her mad scene deeply affecting.
Stephanie Roth Haberle’s Gertrude is marked by stately dignity. As the usurping king, Michael Emerson is a Claudius lacking regal authority; he fails to harness the scheming vindictiveness of the role. Emerson also acts a chummy, pajama-clad Ghost and is most amusing as the foppish Osric.
David Margulies provides witty support in the roles of Polonius and the First Gravedigger, mining the dry humor of his characters, while Frank Wood is an alarmingly wooden Player King.
The production’s use of some very silly props summons titters from the audience. For the arrival of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, a phonograph is brought onstage to spin a recording of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” As the Ghost puffs on a stogie, the chilling description of his murder at the hand of his brother becomes a cozy fireside chat. Gone are the ominous elements of fear and trembling on a foggy castle parapet.
In perhaps one of the strangest scenes, Polonius reads Hamlet’s love letter to his daughter to Gertrude and Claudius. The text, it appears, is written on Ophelia’s back!
There is also an awkwardly uncomfortable moment that finds Hamlet stripping down to full nudity, confronting Claudius as both father and mother in one flesh. This may be the first nude Hamlet in theatrical history. Even worse, Polonius encounters Hamlet in the fishmonger scene while sitting on the toilet. Campbell manages to rise above the director’s disturbing concept and physical trappings with some dignity.
In lieu of the avenging Fortinbras and his conquering troops, a silent assemblage of 10 children appears for the final carnage. “Flights of angels,” perhaps? With the bodies of Gertrude, Claudius and Laertes sprawled at his feet, the dying Dane even shoots his loyal companion Horatio this time around for good measure. With Horatio dead, who survives to tell the story?