By SHARON EBERSON
To be Hamlet is to be a student prince bound to seek revenge for his father’s death, and to be indecisive in the task. Anything else is as you like it.
More to the point, to borrow a line from the play at hand, “To thine own self be true.”
You may quibble with those who call William Shakespeare’s Hamlet the greatest play in the English language, but it’s hard to argue against the title role as the pinnacle of challenges for any artist. As Hamlet in Quantum Theatre’s gripping, grunge-meets-glam-rock production at the Carrie Furnaces Historic Landmark site, Treasure Treasure is the latest performer to take on the Prince of Denmark and make it her own.
The multidisciplinary trans artist pinballs between Hamlet’s ever-changing emotional state, the very embodiment of a guitar riff that morphs from heartbreaking melancholy to righteous rage. She does not deliver platitudes, but packs every inch of fierce, complicated, charming humanity into words that we have heard so often before, many are part of our daily lives.
Treasure’s Hamlet also is an expression of her own uncompromising humanity. Her waist-length braid is always visible, her slender frame is corseted under a flowing coat, and in the end, she wears a lace gown to a sword fight.
She is one cool prince, even as Hamlet sinks into an internal struggle against the tide of events:
The ghost of Hamlet’s father (Dereck Walton) reveals he was murdered by his brother, Claudius (Sam Turich), who has taken the crown – and the queen – as his own. The king demands vengeance, but Hamlet, already unhinged at the thought of his mother marrying his uncle in short order, can’t bring himself to do the obvious. Killing Claudius and taking his rightful place as heir to the throne does not suit the personality of the introspective prince.
Instead, Hamlet pretends to be mad and devises ploys to reveal Claudius’ evil deed.
Besides being the brilliant writer we know Shakespeare to be, the Bard must have been one sarcastic dude. At the least, he bestowed Hamlet with some of the most caustic jabs ever uttered. Treasure smartly drips with sarcasm in his delivery, so that you are reminded, were Hamlet not so thoughtful and half so clever, he might have rushed to his task. Then we would have been deprived of takedowns such as, “My father’s brother, but no more like my father / than I to Hercules!”
The imperious Claudius displays his own disdain, using words such as “unmanly” to describe his nephew/stepson.
The many sides of Hamlet are revealed through interactions with those closest in age to the prince. We know him to be fun-loving – why else would royalty hang out with those unwitting goofballs, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by the zany Dave Mansueto and Theo Allyn? He can be loyal and, at times, purposeful, as seen with his bestie, the steadfast Horatio (Brett Mack). He also is cruel to be kind. He pushes away the adoring Ophelia (Saige Smith), either because she is a distraction or he is protecting her from his struggles. Either way, a Taylor Swift-style breakup song is in the offing.
As Polonius, adviser to Claudius and father of Ophelia and Laertes, Thom Delventhal makes a triumphant return to the company where he played Marc Antony in 1997 – Quantum’s first production. He is delightfully daffy, and a doting father. His long goodbye speech to Laertes, in which he tries the patience of a saint, lands with satisfaction as it ends, “This above all: to thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Can there be spoilers in Hamlet after seven centuries, give or take? If so, some are to come, and swiftly, so be warned.
Among the tragedies of Hamlet’s struggles are the deaths that follow in his wake. Polonius’ death, in particular, hurts, although here it detracts somewhat from the too-swift and central confrontation between Hamlet and his mother (Robin Walsh). Think of the line “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room,” and you get the idea.
Dangers that Shakespeare did not script lurk throughout the massive set, not the least of which is navigating three staircases, with a connecting platform at the top. Turich stumbled once on the center steps, drawing gasps, including mine, but he quickly regained his footing.
As Ophelia, singing and staggering in a mad, disheveled state, Smith seemed to be teetering on the edge, both mentally and physically. Her sung lamentations were a highlight of the night.
Smith and Brenden Peifer (Laertes and others) have become favorites for many local companies, and with good reason. This Hamlet provided among my favorite roles Peifer, showing range and depth as a revenge-seeking son and brother, and as a feminine performer in Hamlet’s play within the play.
Some intimacy and focus have been sacrificed for awe-inspiring scale in this production, particularly in the fate of Gertrude, with the great Robin Walsh swathed in funereal black and kept apart from the well-lit action of a sword fight.
Treasure, who bounded easily throughout the set on opening night Friday, was the victim of a microphone that cut out through much of the first act, even as she performed such well-known speeches as: “What a piece of work is man …” and “To be or not to be …”
Some heaven-sent elements, however, were on her side. No train was heard on nearby tracks, nor airplane flew overhead. And at that same time, a previously fence-rattling wind died down. The audience, too, fell silent and leaned in as one, so you could hear Treasure impart the emotion-filled words and felt the effect of the silences, too.
I do of course wish Treasure had the benefit of volume during those much-anticipated moments, and I will return to see this edgy, thrilling production, directed by Jeffrey Carpenter.
Like many frequent Quantum patrons, I have sat through rain and cold and natural and manmade clamors, so I was thankful that a gusty wind more appropriate to King Lear gave way to beautiful opening-night weather.
The Tony Ferrieri-designed set and stands, originally built to fit the airplane-hangar sized building close at hand, was moved just two weeks ago to its current home. The play now unfolds under the setting sun and stars, with the seating bank on one side and the hulking ruin of a blast furnace as a backdrop.That rusted palace of industry becomes increasingly menacing as the sky grows dark, so you can easily imagine a ghostly presence afoot.
Costumes by Susan Tsu evoke a nation state in turmoil – the first person onstage is dressed in riot police gear – contrasted with the satiny finery of Gertrude and Ophelia’s girlish prints. The unadorned black crown so coveted by Claudius – and another vengeance seeking son, Norway’s Fortibras (Dylan Marquis Meyers, in multiple roles) – is stark in its height and lack of adornment.
Quantum’s Hamlet has been adapted by artistic director Karla Boos into an almost breezy 2 hours and 15 minutes, plus a 20-minute intermission (at full length, without interval, it would take 4 hours to perform).
Too often, Shakespeare’s works exist on a pedestal for adoring followers, with ideals that are sacrosanct. Then every so often, you get, say, Sarah Bernhardt‘s 1899 performance as Hamlet, breaking with tradition, and starting one anew.
Storied works can use a little shaking up now and then, and that’s a Quantum Theatre specialty. Marrying a work to a site and honing in on a hot topic – Succession, anyone? – those are Quantum strengths, too. And in Hamlet, we get all that, plus an exquisitely poignant star turn by a local treasure.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Quantum Theatre’s production of Hamlet is at Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark (for GPS: Carrie Furnace Boulevard, Rankin, PA 15104), through August 27, 2023, at 7:30 p.m., with one 11 a.m. matinee on August 23. Visit https://www.quantumtheatre.com/hamlet/ or call 412-362-1713.