Running a total of three and half hours with two intermissions, the Theater for a New Audience’s production of Hamlet at the Duke Theater, like the character Polonius, fails to be brief. Fortunately, director David Esbjornson made every line count and managed to keep almost everyone in the theater, and fully engaged. In order for a modern production of such a canonical (and ubiquitous) play as Hamlet to succeed, it must unearth new mysteries. Shakespeare buffs will easily revert to the usual banalities such as “how will they decide to stage the ghost?” These questions are inevitable, but a stellar production must transcend them to acquire sufficient raison d’etre. In Esbjornson’s version, that compelling, thought-provoking tension stemmed from a dexterous treatment of moral ambiguity and emphatic emotion. The set was a minimalist yet seductive blend of shifting black, whites, and grays; each tone a deliberate but naïve instrument of inevitable confusion and discontent.
Complementing the amorphous set, each character was driven by blind and frenzied emotion, only hinting at the subtext of ethical uncertainty. The play’s ability to convey a chaotic undercurrent of an irrational world was its greatest aide in capturing a contemporary audience. In a time when morality, ethics, and accountability have been undermined by Madoff, Blagojevich, and AIG, the question of right vs. wrong is almost cliched. But Hamlet’s characters’ ability to convey the arduous process of decision-making is what makes the audience see both the play, and the present world, in a new light.
As Hamlet, Christian Camargo is subtly driven by the forces of two insanities: The charade he puts on for others, and a self-acknowledged depression and anxiety that he tenuously infers influences his decisions nearly as much as the desire for revenge. Delivered by Camargo, Hamlet’s lines about willingness to die are not those of a hero, but of a young man who is deeply disillusioned and quite done with life, even as he seeks to redeem it. Previously, he appeared in a Broadway production of All My Son’s as George Deever, a character who turns against his father based on false information, only to learn of his error and wreck havoc for his family. Camargo brings those undertones of error and uncertainty to his Hamlet. Camargo’s Hamlet is as fearful as he is fierce.
The crescendo of his plot against the King is mirrored by a helpless and excruciating collapse inward; this Hamlet seems to know that he will kill himself in the process of revenge. It is this knowledge that permits his lack of clarity about how to proceed. Everyone knows the ending of Hamlet, except Camargo, it seems. His willful performance betrays a note of wild terror; he is indeed simply a player on the world’s stage.
Alternatively, Jennifer Ikeda as Ophelia has a strong feminist core, making the character’s unraveling all the more devastating to watch. She is convincing when she promises her brother Laertes that she will not be swayed by Hamlet’s sweet nothings. In the scene following her humiliating, public rejection, Ikeda wavers and vacillates brilliantly. She is not simply stunned: She is trying to gather her strength and wit, but failing. Ultimately, what drives her over edge is not the loss of Hamlet’s affection, but her failure to immerge as an empowered human being.
Other notable performances were Alvin Epstein, as her father Polonius, whose self-absorption is powerfully entertaining and amusing in the first three acts. Under Esbjornson’s creative direction and staging, Epstein is able to infuse Polonious’ monologues with levity and elderly bliss. The ease with which he shifts to do Claudius’ bidding is even more jarring and serves to accentuate the play’s shifting plates of morality and value.
Alyssa Bresnahan as Hamlet’s mother, on the other hand, masters the art of self-abdication and rejection of responsibility. But she dexterously allows a disturbed conscience to infiltrate her otherwise stoic portrayal of Gertrude. She like, Hamlet, seems to realize early on that the family is on a sinking ship. But unlike Hamlet, her doubts are buried beneath an eerily diligent routine.
She represents the tragedy of the play that perhaps most resonates with the modern audience: The need to deny wrongdoing until the last possible moment. But Hamlet bluntly betrays the sickness of a world has evolved from lies. Each character is saddled with a lack of internal consistency that grimly underscores our skepticism. But Shakespeare reminds us that corruption must always play its course. Only when the arc is complete are we graced with silence.