To Hamlet or not to Hamlet

Lindsay Lillig

The Kansas City Actors Theatre (KCAT) production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” directed by Mark Robbins, opened the company’s fall season with a semi-modern adaptation of one the most notorious plays in the world.
“Hamlet” revolves around its namesake, the Prince of Denmark. The play begins with the closing festivities of Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle) and Gertrude’s (Hamlet’s mother) marriage. The scandalous marriage occurs only two months after the death of the late king (Hamlet’s father). Hamlet is distraught over the union between his mother and his uncle, and becomes even more distressed when he discovers (from the ghost of his father) that Claudius killed the late king. Hamlet becomes consumed by desire for vengeance that surpasses far more than just his status.
KCAT incorporates a prologue into its production. It is in the style of a narrated dumb show. A narrator explains the plot while a group of players briefly enact it before the audience. The lights go dark, the set shifts into place and then the presentation of true text begins.
The cast and crew do a fine job introducing the initial conflict. The lighting and sound effects during the first scene instill the notion that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is in the seats with the audience.
However, it is Hamlet’s (Jake Walker) opening soliloquy that puts the production into drive. Walker’s interpretation of “O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt…” is superb. Every phrase and turn of thought is fueled by betrayal, bewilderment and dismay.
The scene of Laertes’ (Matthew Lindblom) departure seems overshadowed by the following scene where Hamlet is confronted by his father’s ghost (Mark Robbins).
The series where Polonius (Walter Coppage), Claudius (Scott Cordes) and Gertrude (Cinnamon Schultz) conclude Hamlet’s madness stems from his unrequited love for Laertes’ sister, Ophelia, (Diane Yvette) is critical to the storyline, but feels rushed. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is underemphasized, which reduces the impact of their interactions and dialogue with one another. It almost seems unwarranted when Hamlet exclaims to Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery!”
The betrayal Hamlet and Ophelia individually feel is lost because the magnitude of their love is minimally addressed in previous scenes. However, Walker saved the scene with his delivery of “To be or not to be…”
Rosencrantz (Vanessa Severo) and Guildenstern (Rusty Sneary) arrive after the first intermission, and provide a welcomed change in dynamic. Severo and Sneary are excellent partners whose movements and gestures effectively complement one another. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern help to reignite the production’s energy.
Walker amps up the severity of Hamlet’s craziness when Hamlet pretends to go mad in order to make Claudius confess that he killed the former king. But while Hamlet’s craziness is exaggerated, Ophelia’s is too diminished. Ophelia then goes mad after Hamlet shuns her and kills her father.
Yvette evokes pity as Ophelia, but evokes little else. She plays melancholy and delusional well, but her performance falls short of exemplifying the level of madness and emotional torture typically associated with Ophelia’s character.
Ophelia’s sub-par character development, coupled with poor development of the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet, causes the scene to fall flat rather than serving as climactic.
When Walker protests, “I loved Ophelia! Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum,” this declaration comes as a surprise. Further, when Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel, partly for causing his sister’s death, it feels undeserved.
Lindblom conjures a beautifully vengeful disposition, but his character’s motives still seem baseless.
The show ends when Fortinbras enters (Matthew Schmidli) after the deaths of Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes and Hamlet.
Overall, it would be unfair to call the production anything less than a success. All things considered—more or less—it was an enjoyable rendition of “Hamlet.” Some actors stand out, most directorial choices support the text, lighting and sound are flawless and the costumes are stunning. UMKC alum Sarah Potts designed sound, and MFA alum Lauren Roark designed costumes.
The actors don a mix of modern and period dress, noble garments that feature lots of leather, belts, elegant fabric, combat boots, henley shirts and Vans.
Walker’s Hamlet wears a jean vest, graphic tee, black jeans and checkered Vans. This is a nice modern touch, and a clever way to symbolize Hamlet as a universal character – or maybe to intentionally mock the heightened angst Walker uses to portray him.
The set, designed by Gary Mosby, is ingenious. It features three dual-level platforms that—with just a shift or turn in one direction—function seamlessly in each scene.
Walker, Cordes, Coppage, Severo and Sneary deliver the strongest performances. Cordes evokes empathy for Claudius, which is not often achieved since Claudius serves as the villainous character.
Coppage portrays Polonius with dignity and esteem, which is refreshing. In other productions of “Hamlet,” Polonius is often played as incompetent and pretentious. It is nice to see an actor play the character as the character sees himself—not just how the audience sees him.
The performance’s only significant downfall lies in its lack of significance given to Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship, which is far too simplified. It is a critical part of the play’s backstory and the ever-increasing conflict throughout the plot. No production of “Hamlet” stands to be fulfilling—textually, circumstantially and theatrically—without suitable expression of their relationship.
“Hamlet” runs through Sunday, Sept. 28 at the H&R Block City Stage of Union Station in rotating repertoire, along with Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” directed by Richard Esvang.
Ticketing information and show times are available at kcactors.org.