With all the Freudian goings-on at Elsinore, "Hamlet" has always been a kind of family affair. At first glance, it would seem that Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires has taken familial matters to heart with the casting of a.d. and founder Tina Packer as Gertrude and her son Jason Asprey as the conflicted Prince.
With all the Freudian goings-on at Elsinore, “Hamlet” has always been a kind of family affair. At first glance, it would seem that Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires has taken familial matters to heart with the casting of a.d. and founder Tina Packer as Gertrude and her son Jason Asprey as the conflicted Prince. To add a further complication to the casting, Asprey’s stepfather, Dennis Krausnick, plays — not Claudius (that would be a bit too, well, twisted) — but Polonius.
What may on the surface appear as casting grist for the feature story mill in the end is rather beside the point. The production is lively, intelligent and intriguing and has much less to do with relations among the actors as with the connections to the playwright.
Helmer Eleanor Holdridge has staged an effective, reduced-cast (11 in all) production that sees the play as a kind of shock-therapy vision into Hamlet’s mind. Indeed, the play opens with an electrical jolt and sizzling sound effect that suggests we’re witnessing the burned-out circuitry of an unraveling mind, especially as swirling disembodied voices echo the play’s most famous lines.
The blank-slate setting suits the production’s premise and places only modest demands on the theater’s extreme thrust stage, leaving most of the show’s visual style to Jessica Ford’s modern-hip costumes: Ophelia is a bit of a grunge slacker; Laertes’ look is more Soho chic; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are straight out of “Queer Eye.”
Once inside Hamlet’s mind, we discover he’s an extreme editor, too, as the text is pared down and characters cut. Gone are assorted soldiers, the second gravedigger and — in the boldest move — the troupe of players. When it comes time for the Player King to perform Hamlet’s requested scene at court, he hands scripts to Claudius (a measured Nigel Gore) and Gertrude to act out, resulting in a nice bit of mirrored realities.
There are a number of other unorthodox choices, too. The relationship between Gertrude and Claudius seems altogether human and loving, bordering on the sweet. This take suggests a different backstory to the marriage of Hamlet’s uncle to his newly widowed mother (he did it for love!). But it also makes Hamlet a bit of a petulant prig who may be overreacting to affairs of state and home. As played by Gore and Packer, this couple seems extraordinarily well balanced, sensible and caring. Though Packer may not achieve regal bearing at all times, her maternal anguish is genuine, honest and affecting.
Krausnick has gentle fun as Polonius, an out-of-synch man in love with his own words and wisdom. Elizabeth Raetz plays an infatuated and gutsy Ophelia, but perhaps a little too headstrong since her own meltdown into madness is not as heartbreaking as it could be. Tom Wells and Kenajuan Bentley have a delicious sense of entre nous as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
In his first leading role at the 29-year-old theater (and the first time the summer complex has taken on “Hamlet” on its main stage), Asprey is attractive, poised and polished as he comes to terms with his character’s fevered confusion at the royal changing of the guardians. But Asprey is not yet as galvanizing and bold as some aspects of the production dare to be (however misplaced at times they may be). If we are witnessing a young intellectual man’s unraveling when faced with matters of mortality, revenge and duty, there should be more flashes of danger in the disintegration of a beautiful mind. At least for the first half of the play, Asprey’s single vocal pitch is on a smoky, albeit well-spoken, monotone. It’s not until the second half of the play that the clearly talented actor shows more shadings, emotions and range as events and his mind spiral out of control.
Maybe this Hamlet takes after his father more than we usually suspect — at least his father in this production. Here the ghost of the warrior king (wonderfully played by John Windsor-Cunningham, who also is cast as the Player King and the gravedigger) speaks in hushed plaintive tones. Instead of a fierce paternal figure that shakes his son to his bones and challenges him to act decisively, this strangely poignant figure haunts his son in ways far deeper than revenge, ways that cut to the very core of existence. It’s enough to drive a prince mad.