“Hamlet” is generally considered a young man’s play, the quintessential drama of a juvenile hero groping for existential direction in a world stripped by old men of all order and meaning. What, then, could the Classic Stage Company be thinking of, casting Michael Cumpsty, a middle-aged actor who carries himself with authority and refuses to disguise his maturity? Surprisingly, this bold casting stroke gives the play fresh meaning for a contemporary generation weary of a petulant prince who, in perverse reversal of the Shakespearean dynamic, has brought ruination on the great kingdom he inherited from his father.
This Hamlet is no slave to the raging hormones of youth in Cumpsty’s electrifying perf, but an adult unnerved by the moral decadence and political corruption of his society. Returning home from his studies abroad to bury his father and rule the kingdom, this sober hero erupts in anger and sorrow to discover that his mother the queen has hastily married her late husband’s lusty brother and that everyone in the royal court has reverted to the egocentric behavior of thoughtless children.
To be sure, there are no stuffed dolls or toy soldiers cluttering the boxed white set that Mark Wendland has designed with wide peek-a-boo windows for voyeuristic onlookers. But after an ill-conceived opening in which the audience is herded onto the stage to play follow-that-ghost, the overall tone of helmer Brian Kulick’s production emphatically suggests that Elsinore Castle has been turned into a nursery for giddy grown-ups who have abdicated the political responsibilities of their governing class.
It’s quite a scene. Elder statesmen are capering about in costumes of infantile white (executed with humor by Oana Botez-Ban). The queen (Caroline Lagerfelt) is being bounced on the king’s knee like a sluttish lap-dancer. Courtiers are stuffing their faces at the buffet table. And the king of Denmark (Robert Dorfman) is prancing around them all, directing the festivities in the loud and vulgar accents of a drunken clown.
Appalled by the irresponsible and possibly criminal behavior of this gang, Cumpsty’s Hamlet seethes with rage and quivers with contempt when he rails against all “things rank and gross” in the kingdom. Brit-born thesp is physically strapping, with piercing eyes and a jutting jaw, and he clamps down on these emotions with the ferocity of a bad-tempered pit bull. But it’s the intellectual energy that galvanizes his performance — the energy of a mind on fire.
This is a Hamlet who considers his options for action from a much different perspective than that of an inexperienced youth struggling for certitude. This worldly-wise prince easily recognizes the political corruption and quickly identifies its source. His mind is not clouded by youthful passion, and he is not distracted by specious arguments.
Rather, his hesitation comes from his determination to restore the order of the body politic without bringing down the entire kingdom — or losing his own soul. Contemplating whether to bear “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them,” Cumpsty thrillingly sums up the essential dilemma of every thinking person in a world gone mad.
Although no one else in the company can match Cumpsty’s clarity of thought and purity of diction, Kulick’s helming elicits fine technical work from cast vets like Lagerfelt as Gertrude and Herb Foster as Polonius, who speak the speech with the temperance that does, indeed, “hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” Jon DeVries is a particular treasure, investing the Ghost, the gravedigger, Fortinbras and especially the Player King with full-figured characters and distinctive voices.
Tech support is sturdy, with special kudos to fight director J. Steven White for the beautiful formality of dueling scenes too often staged like roughhouse sessions in the schoolyard.