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Idaho Shakespeare Festival opens ‘Hamlet’ with two very different takes on the play

kgreen@idahostatesman.com

“Hamlet” is forever a mystery in some ways. It’s arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy (although an argument can be made for “King Lear”). It is filled with a legion of themes, ideas and possibilities that makes the playing of it remarkably fresh and flexible.

Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production casts two very different actors in the title role: Jonathan Dyrud and Laura Welsh Berg. Don’t let the gender play fool you. Both actors play Hamlet, not the prince or princess of Denmark.

The ensemble cast around them is solid. Each actor is at home in his or her part, but so much depends on Hamlet’s motivations, intentions and the actor’s interpretation that the experience of each performance is remarkably unique unto themselves. This is a feast for theater lovers to experience.

You know the story: Hamlet’s father is murdered by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (David Anthony Smith), who then marries Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Kathleen Pirkl Tague). Passed over for the crown and rightly freaked out about the marriage, Hamlet vows revenge at the urging of his father’s ghost (Lynn Robert Berg). Poor Ophelia (Erin Partin); her father, Polonius (Dougfred Miller); and brother, Laertes (Nick Steen), get caught in the crossfire and all meet tragic ends. All except for Hamlet’s best buddy, Horatio (Christopher Tocco), who is left to tell the tale.

Producing artistic director Charlie Fee sets this tale of the melancholy Dane in the Renaissance time period, a common experience in Shakespearean production around the world, but unusual for ISF. ISF productions are regularly set in contemporary times, or some imagined era that blends styles and idioms on a broadly open stage. The last Renaissance-style production at ISF was a 1999 Paul Barnes-directed “Romeo and Juliet.”

Kim Krumm Sorenson’s Renaissance-esque costuming deftly sets the tone for time with lush colors and details that subtly relate to the characters, such as Partin’s lovely overdress covered with green vines — a nod to her connection to nature and the “weedy trophies” that send her to her death.

Russell Metheny’s rich wooded set — inspired by The Globe Theatre in Stratford, England — helps distill the action by sharply defining the playing space. ISF productions tend to play up the spacious quality of the amphitheater. It uses an anti-rake, meaning the performance area is level, as opposed to the angled or raked stage the amphitheater provides. The effect creates a strong focal point for the actors and audience. It’s a subtle difference but it serves to intensify scenes.

It also allows for on-stage audience seating that puts you up close to the action.

Though the production values don’t change, the feel, temper and tone of each night is strikingly varied as each actor makes very different choices that take the text in divergent directions.

Dyrud launched the production Friday — technically a preview; however, this is the company’s second run at it. This “Hamlet” closed the season at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater — ISF’s sister company, and with the exception of Kathleen Pirkl Tague as Gertrude and a few other minor characters, the cast is the same. Berg performed for Saturday’s opening night.

Dyrud’s Hamlet seethes with anger and an edge of brutality that resonates closely and clearly in our current anger-filled culture. (As king he would be in the Trumpian model.) Dyrud speaks the text well, but handles it directly and is so matter-of-fact in his actions that he becomes even more frustrated at his inability to execute his revenge.

Dyrud peels away Hamlet’s layers throughout the performance, revealing his deeper humanity in his final scenes with Laertes. His Friday performance got off to a slow start, and the pacing seemed labored in the first act. In Act II, things kicked into gear, shooting swiftly and powerfully to the climactic finale.

Berg was electric at Saturday’s performance. Her Hamlet is subtle and superbly nuanced. She mines the irony and humor in the text at every turn, and brings a humanity to her Dane from the very beginning. Her Hamlet is plagued and trapped by his own thoughts, fears and doubts. It’s only in the final scene when he is at death’s door that he can strike at the heart of his vengeance.

Partin is an incredible Ophelia in both instances, although her character had more on-stage chemistry with Berg. Partin relishes the full range of fair Ophelia from her giddy, hopeful beginnings to her tortured descent into madness. Smith’s Claudius is a total charmer at first, keeping his evil intentions close until circumstances push him to play his hand against Hamlet. You feel he did it all for Gertrude’s love, as much as for the power he’s not really up to managing.

Tague’s Gertrude is blind to Claudius’ failings, or seemingly so. This is one of the central relationships that drives the plot. There’s more disdain for her from Dyrud’s Hamlet and more confused affection from Berg’s. They both work.

Lynn Robert Berg does double duty as the tortured king of Denmark’s ghost and the Player King, the actor who plays the king in the play-within-the-play. With a powerful physical presence, he is excellent at both.

Miller is spot on and delightfully funny as the seemingly daft court counselor Polonius, in many ways the antithesis of Hamlet’s absent father and uncaring uncle. However, his overcare of his children leads as much to the tragedy.

Steen’s Laertes is jovial and charming but once his anger is stirred his action is swift — again Hamlet’s opposite. However, that swiftness feeds into the inevitable, too.

There is no escaping for these characters, and that’s the point, perhaps: that we all are trapped — not by circumstance but by our own tendencies, whether we’re in Denmark or Idaho.

Both productions are worthwhile — and having seen both I can recommend you try doing the same. There so much in this play that is relevant in any era, it doesn’t hurt to see it twice.

‘Hamlet’

8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, June 7-10, and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 11, and dates through Sunday, June 25; ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. $20-$45 general, $13 children 6-17 on family night, $20 students with valid ID any night. 336-9221, IdahoShakespeare.org.

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