Layout 1The poignancy of life’s arrivals and departures resonate in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Hamlet, the final production of Ted Pappas’s tenure as artistic director. From the opening question–”Who’s there?”–to the summoning of angels to fly the sweet prince to eternal rest, this Hamlet is a polished jewel. Visually, the action plays in a shiny, pillared Elsinore with the actors reflected in back wall mirrors from varied angles.

Leading the 21 person cast is stellar Matthew Amendt whose Hamlet drives the production with urgent intent. This focus honors both the Public’s Shakespearean traditions, Pappas’ final bow, and the need to tell a story well.

If you’ve experienced Hamlet many times, go and wallow in the all words you know and anything you’ve missed in previous tellings. If this is a play you’ve never seen in production, just go and see what all the fuss is about. Hamlet is the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s skill as a writer and his own experience of the capacity of the human heart to love well, lose, and break. The play’s timeless themes are indeed a mirror to human nature.

Shakespeare’s personal tale is rife with raw grief, nightmares about remains after death, and depiction of families torn apart by life’s outrageous fortune. (He wrote Hamlet following the death of his 11-year-old son, Hamnet.)

PPT_Hamlet_037Like Shakespeare, Prince Hamlet’s is understandably distressed at being absent when one of his closest family members suddenly dies. The prince’s deep psychological musings about death, and vengeful notions are not unlike the familiar phases of grief.

Amendt’s acts with the kind of thoughtful technique, heartfelt soliloquies, and casual charm that predicts an exciting career. So, if Amendt seems to conjure bits of David Tennant, Roger Rees, or Kevin Kline, it’s just wonderful; this native of Indiana, Pennsylvania, is part of a new generation of classical actors now in the slips to bring worthy words of great plays to life.

Stepping seamlessly into each of the three foundational speeches that let the audience into Hamlet’s inner thoughts, Amendt invites us to join him. Pappas’ choice to bring the house lights up on “To be, or not to be…” echoes how Shakespeare’s own audience would have experienced those words for the first time–in daylight with the actor relating to patrons in plain view. That speech and the prince’s “advice to the players” are just a few of the innumerable moments that make several hours with this rising star and Pappas’ strong cast so delightful.

Matthew Amendt as Hamlet

Matthew Amendt as Hamlet

It’s Ophelia who conveys a women’s grief, madly clutching flowers as she recalls her father. Inconsolable, Jenny Leona quietly slips into another world, perhaps the world the playwright’s own wife explored at their own loss. Leona is subtle and natural, as she moves from the slighted beloved of Hamlet to the distressed, grieving daughter.

A solid and important performance is given by Andrew William Miller as Horatio, Hamlet’s closest friend and confidant. Miller is one of the city’s rising classical actors and one to watch, while he’s also the last man standing as this tragedy ends and also served as fight captain. The aggressive Fortinbras is given commanding presence by Drew Ledbetter who also steps into Hamlet’s shoes for two student matinees.

David Whalen’s Claudius is a confident usurper with no regrets until, of course, he thinks he’s been revealed as his brother’s murderer. The versatile Whalen is well-cast as the ambitious uncle-king. He doesn’t flinch, even when his wife is about to drink the poison cup he prepared.

Jenny Leona as Ophelia

Jenny Leona as Ophelia

Here, Caris Vujcec as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is the coolest and most detached I have seen her played. We don’t feel any sympathy for her and she seems to care less about her son that often suggestion. She cares even less about poor Ophelia. Perhaps she already suspects her husband and knows which way the tragic wheel must spin. This choice by actress and/or Pappas serves the production well for she helps us to focus on Amendt’s Hamlet. His path of grieving, questions, and acting is profound and we care about him. When he almost takes the life of his praying uncle, we hold our breath. When Amendt declares how he loved Ophelia are her unconsecrated grave, we believe him.

Matt Sullivan’s Polonius is more cunning than bumbling here, more a concerned father in his oft-quoted but clever advice to his son Laertes, played by Paul Terzenbach who seems his father’s son–serious and focused. We don’t get to know Laertes much before he blames Hamlet for the loss of his entire family, consistent with Pappas’ focus.

Darren Eliker is commanding as the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the declamatory Player King. Other members of the visiting acting troupe are wonderfully played by Erika Strasburg as the Player Queen, Monteze Freeland as Luianus (and also appears as the Priest), and Don DiGiulio as Prologue (and also plays a Gentleman). The ill-fated and duplicitous Rosencrantz (Allan Snyder) and Guildenstern (Luke Halferty) are likable.

Tony Bingham (who doubles as Voltemand) and Quinn Patrick Shannon bring that much-needed comic relief as the gravediggers. Strong performances are turned in by each of the top notch supporting cast members who also include:  Ben Blazer, Patrick Cannon, Chris Cattell, and Christopher Collier, and Jonathan Visser.

Sword action choreographed by Randy Kovitz was appropriately realistic and scary with its most important success in the play’s final confrontation between Hamlet and Laertes, one of Shakespeare’s most bittersweet one-on-one fights.

James Noone’s shiny, pillared set provides a regal and evocative environment with its reflective surfaces and marble veins. Lighting by Kirk Bookman directs us to note some action with obvious theatricality. Original music and sound by Zach Moore was rather cinematic and a bit heavy-handed, but likewise suited the production style which is a strong nod to theater’s conventions themselves as Pappas enjoys them.

However, these actors dressed in simple black on a black stage blank with a trap door for the gravedigger could carry another Pappas production. As this PPT production is both beautiful to watch and hear, do see Hamlet for all the trappings of the fine theatre Ted Pappas has served up and often staged himself during his tenure as AD.

Hamlet runs through  May 20 at the O’Reilly Theater. Tickets start at $30 with many discounts described for students, young, military, artistic professionals, and more online. Order at 412.316.1600 or in the PPT site.

Photos by Michael Henninger

Categories: Archived Reviews

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