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THEATER REVIEW Hamlet
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-05-02

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Playwright: William Shakespeare

At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: ChicagoShakes.org and 312-595-5600; $48-$88. Runs through: June 9

Long ago, before universities evolved into the trade-schools-for-rich-kids they represent today, their curriculum in preparation for civic leadership encompassed such subjects as logic, classical rhetoric, theology, grammar and mathematics. This course of study reflected the belief that if a person was educated in how to THINK—that is, how to evaluate information through rational examination—all other knowledge would come easily.

So how does our young protagonist, untimely ripped from the orderly realm of academe by his father's sudden death and his mother's hasty remarriage to her brother-in-law, deal with the unforeseen loss of one parent and perplexing betrayal of another? First, he weeps and sulks, as any son would. Then, after a ghost claiming to be that of his late sire offers an explanation for the family upheaval, our hero tests the veracity of this proposal ( by a decidedly unreliable source ) according to the precepts he has been taught. Once convinced of his anger's righteous motive, however, he is as unswerving as he is calculating in acquiring the skills to call those responsible to account.

The Hamlet portrayed by Maurice Jones for this Chicago Shakespeare Theater production bears no resemblance to Laurence Oliver's defining mid-20th-century portrait of the Danish prince as a Byronesque neurasthenic, thrashing in existential agony around his parents' castle and beating up his girl friend. Instead, director Barbara Gaines has stripped Shakespeare's text of half its uncut length to now clock in at two and a half hours of suspenseful introspection blossoming into violence discharged with razor-edged efficiency and nary a trace of actorly flourish.

Not only does this render the plot immediately comprehensible—clarifying the contributions of bookish Horatio and preppy Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to their bestie's pursuit of justice, for example—but also lends fresh credibility to auxiliary characters too often reduced to threadbare stereotypes: Polonius may still overdo the dispensation of his advice, but yet there is wisdom in his counsel. The gravediggers may still take grim humor in their trade, but their observations are firmly integrated into the story's progress.

Most recognizable in 2019, though, is Claudius, the usurping villain of our procedural—no "bloody bawdy" brute this time, but a sleek, pompadoured politician whose unctuous accent ( sporting just a hint of a Southern drawl ) may be viewed as a harbinger of our upcoming election year.


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