Karen Ball as Hamlet (l) and Joe Quinn as The Ghost.
Director Michael Howard is fond of quoting novelist Anthony Burgess’s estimation of Hamlet as “the play the world can least do without.” And Howard’s exhilarating, bracingly conceived new production, with its ardent attention to the language, is indeed a Hamlet for Hamlet-lovers. The exceptional Karen Ball stars as the Dane in a dynamic, stripped-down, startlingly intimate ensemble production in which the actors are at once players and audience. Acorn Productions, which has long bared the Bard of his theatrical trappings, stages it in the stageless Community Room of USM’s Wishcamper Center.
The era is broadly modern in the casually natty court of King Claudius (Randall Tuttle) and Gertrude (Mary Fraser) — where tastes run to corduroy blazers, suits, and a medium-maintenance ’stache on self-conscious Laertes (Maxwell Aranson) — and the set is simple: a Danish flag and a square of 20 wooden chairs. These chairs serve as both stage and wings for the ensemble of 12 actors, who remain “onstage” throughout. They rise from their chairs to play scenes inside and around the square, then return to their seats to watch, frequently transiting the tight aisle formed between their chairs and the three-quarter round of the audience just behind. The unusual staging suggests both enclosure and the dual acts of watching and performing, which are the primary m.o. of our Hamlet, blanched and enervated in black jeans, in a place where he is at once encircled and very alone.
The production’s blocking is marvelously kinetic, with much strolling, stalking, and skidding around the perimeter of the chairs as other players look on. Howard’s staging evokes a cage’s walls being paced, heightens the play’s motifs of self-performance, and sometimes delivers an almost cinematic effect of simultaneity, as when Horatio (Jessica Labbe, fine and lucid), races around the perimeter several times before finding Hamlet, who has been soliloquizing. Hamlet delivers other monologues while the rest of the scene is frozen around him, a conceit that amplifies Hamlet’s isolation and his quick mind. Elsewhere, Ophelia (Molly Bryant Roberts) recounts Hamlet’s behavior in an interactive, deliciously physical flashback in which we watch Hamlet toy with her and exit, then shake off his “madness” and walk grimly, sanely away around the perimeter.
Howard’s cast, which executes his designs with impressive precision, has been working with the text (as part of Acorn’s Shakespeare Conservatory) since January, and you can see it in the cohesion of their ensemble work and the nuances of each characterization. The animation and sing-song lilt of Fraser’s Gertrude, in her filmy black-raspberry dress, contrast beautifully with Hamlet’s ashen angst; while Tuttle’s well-wrought Claudius is less a villain than an unremarkable, smarmy schlub. Roberts’ Ophelia has an engaging playfulness with her brother and an affecting responsiveness with Hamlet — watch her mouth ease, heartbreakingly, into laughing relief when Hamlet says he loved her; watch it tighten and quiver when he says he loved her not.
And Ball’s Dane is exquisite. She is so immersed, and knows the language so thoroughly, that it is an utter pleasure to watch her Hamlet’s quicksilver shifts in attention and intention, intonation and inflection. Ball’s Hamlet is exponentially smarter and quicker than everyone around him, which only heightens his frustration, alienation, and rage. It’s revealing to see Hamlet’s momentary relief and pleasure to be finally in the presence of someone who challenges his wit: the laconic gravedigger (Joe Quinn, whose graveyard spiel is mystifyingly doctored).