There’s a sleek modernist gloss to Theater for a New Audience’s “Hamlet” and Christian Camargo certainly brings contemporary standards of pale male beauty to the soulful Prince of Denmark. But whatever fresh ideas helmer David Esbjornson might have intended are too often drowned out by the visual bedlam of the design elements and the inconsistent performance styles.
“Hamlet” may be universal and timeless, but in any production you still want to know where you are. There’s nothing wrong with ambiguity, but if you really want value for cash, consistency is a better buy.
Although vocally uncowed by the sonorous Shakespearean idiom, Camargo — who took the title role in the company’s “Coriolanus” and was recently on Broadway in “All My Sons” — finds himself in trouble early in the production. Hamlet walks onstage with a white chair and turns his back on the glittering crowd celebrating the marriage of his mother to his uncle — a gesture of contempt for the values of his elders that comes off as merely petulance.
Counter to his sensitive looks, Camargo seems more suited to the role of action hero than Hamlet’s persona as youthful poet-scholar — someone too intelligent to act without thinking, but too emotionally conflicted to think straight, let alone act to avenge his father’s murder.
As is clear from his fierce attack on “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” Camargo comes thrillingly alive in any speech that shows personal resolve. He’s also good to watch whenever Hamlet takes a strong moral stance, as he does in his impassioned “Get thee to a nunnery” speech to Ophelia (Jennifer Ikeda, out of her depth even before she drowns) and in his Freudian lecture to Gertrude (a proud queen and a sensual woman, in Alyssa Bresnahan’s notable perf).
Just don’t ask this vital performer to get all introspective, as Hamlet inevitably must, when the plot demands that he examine his core beliefs or reflect upon the consequences of an act of violence. When called upon to think deep thoughts, the thesp assumes a blank expression and collapses his body into a state of languor, a passive response conveying none of the existential angst and mental depression that should animate the most tormented thinking animal in the entire Shakespearean canon.
Antje Ellerman’s minimalist set of open walls and clean-lined occasional pieces (which seem to float above the reflecting black tiles of the stage) and Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s monochromatic costume palette (industrial grey, relieved by infusions of pearl grey, bridal white and biker black) suggest some cool post-modern world where objects speak in symbols (e.g., a plain silver sash draped over a business suit says: “I’m the King here”).
If Esbjornson means to strip the play of its conventional trappings, it seems odd to raid Gothic traditions for Jonathan Fried’s awe-inspiring Ghost, who makes one memorable appearance with a hellish demon riding on his back. (As Horatio, Tom Hammond reacts to this fearsome vision with a naturalness that is wonderfully uncool.)
In the same vein, the slacker-youth delivery of Rosencrantz (Craig Pattison) doesn’t jibe with Richard Topol’s more mature reading of Guildenstern, although both are wearing sneakers. And if the exaggerated depiction of corruption in the court is meant to be taken as a cautionary reflection of our own systemically rotten times, why does old Polonius (given his dignity by the invaluable Alvin Epstein) come off as intellectually superior to his heedless offspring, Laertes (Graham Hamilton), who packs pills in his backpack when going off to college?
There are big inconsistencies in the way Esbjornson treats his working themes of youth-versus-age, thought-versus-action, and truth-versus-vengeance. But aside from all that, it would be nice to know what to make of those wriggling worms of light that periodically appear all over everybody’s faces.