Recap: Mat Young’s Hamlet at the Bijou

hamlet by David F. Pendrys (Editor’s note: This recap is from a layman’s perspective as opposed to a review which would be more technical and grounded. Whereas the actors involved are all professional this blogger is an amateur. My writing is perhaps over the top but this was my attempt to convey the emotions involved in seeing the play. I hope my positive tone and language is not taken as an insult to the great work put on stage. A previous version of this post sadly lacked paragraphs due to a technical glitch, this has been corrected.)

Hamlet, directed by Mat Young at the Bijou in Bridgeport, was part of a two plays in rep, paired with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with the same cast handling both plays. Young’s Hamlet provided the solid core one would expect from the play, but also added some new nuances.

The play was set in modern times with the actors clad in contemporary dress, including Hamlet wearing a Wittenberg University t-shirt. Another distinct element was the mixture of contemporary music at times to the performance. Most, but not all of this was from Johnny Cash. Which certainly a different idea, Cash definitely fits the themes of the play. The actors used the whole space of the Bijou wandering up and down aisles as well as into the cabaret seats, keeping in character literally until they vanished behind the doors, even if only 1 or 2 people could see their performance as they moved “off stage”. This is to be expected from professionals but was nonetheless impressive.

Jeremy Funke did a stellar job as Hamlet. Funke, who I had last seen doing an equally excellent job as the victimized Malvolio in the Putney Players version of Twelfth Night, transitioned between the character’s many moods amidst his “madness” and plotting very well. He used the whole theater to his advantage. and Hamlet’s torment was clear in the soliloquies. Funke’s portrayal of the prince following the death of Polonius with a brilliant mixture of cold disdain and absurdity as he converses with Gertrude as if there wasn’t a dead body lying there, and other times seems as awful as his target in how he describes the pathetic but not villainous courtier. Words really do not do justice to his handling of the complexities involved in portraying the troubled Dane.

Justine Weisinger redefined the word impressive in her performance as Horatio, spending the play having to deal with each twist and turn as Hamlet’s trusted supporter, but also on hand for much of the chaos in a different capacity. For one, the play opened in darkness with all the characters who would die lying prone on the stage. As they rise, Horatio explains what is to come utilizing some of the lines from end of the play. Also, Horatio often is in the background of many scenes, observing, and occasionally commenting when the character traditionally was not present. During Hamlet’s signature soliloquy, Horatio repeats some of his words perhaps signifying his madness, perhaps serving as a sort of Greek chorus, or perhaps I missed Young’s intent. Nonetheless it was distinct and eerie. These additions required Weisinger to be on stage for most of the play when not active in the scene she had to keep an expression appropriate to what was happening, despite not being part of the dialogue. I thought of parallels to Clara in The Nutcracker who often is not the main focal point, but she has to keep her expressions fitting the scene or it can be a distraction. Weisinger carried this out perfectly.

Sam Mink put on a great performance as the oblivious ass Polonius, successfully serving as both the pompous blowhard who annoys Cladius, the father who Laertes and Ophelia mock behind his back, and the man who is actively no match for Hamlet’s wit. I had personally come to believe of Polonius as an important but supporting character in the play, but Mink made Polonius a much more powerful focal point. It was a strong portrayal.

John R Smith Jr.’s Cladius was indeed the villain however the evil underlying him was carried across expertly, as Smith often was calm and reasoned when dealing with Polonius and his antics, or Hamlet, Laertes, and Ophelia in their emotional outbursts, but he would reveal his sinister side briefly and effectively. He was perched in the balcony during the “play within the play” requiring him to use his voice to carry the emotion as he was somewhat obscured from the audience as he bolted up and fled. On one of the most critical lines of the show “Gertrude, do not drink,” his skill was evident. This is a line most cemented in my memory as delivered by Derek Jacobi. However with all respect to the legendary Jacobi, I felt Smith delivered it better, reacting less dramatically and more suddenly and weakly desperate. When it was too late, the mixture of worry and urgency was clear as well.

Lynnette Victoria killed it as Ophelia, no pun intended. Ophelia departs from most of the characters in being seemingly truly happy, exuberant, and innocent, playfully ignoring her father and enjoying Laertes as he mocks Polonius. She is energetic and clad in a fashionable outfit as opposed to most of the cast who is certainly not. Her pained reaction to Hamlet’s cruel rejection of her amidst his “madness” was authentic. Her own madness and frenzy, was well acted, but also the stark transition was set up well by her initial characterization. If she had not been the joyous playful character so clearly early on, her descent, while well acted, would not have been as dramatic. The three stages in Ophelia’s character all worked well together. Victoria, like Funke, used the entire space of the theater and furiously ran up and down aisles, including mine making it the first time I’ve ever had to dodge an actor, during a performance.

Kevin McGuire did double duty as both Laertes and the Lead Player. As Laertes, he begins happy and playful (though not nearly as exuberant as his sister Ophelia), messing with Polonius and seeking not to offend the King on his way to school. Upon his return to avenge Polonius, his rage and pain was evident, raw, and so real. When news of Ophelia’s death reaches him, his grief, his collapse, is just as raw. I found myself thinking during this collapse that the play’s true casualties to the machinations of kings and princes turns out to be Laertes and his family, who didn’t seek out the trouble, but were destroyed by it. This momentary shift was a testament to McGuire’s craft. As the Lead Player, he played a more ridiculous clown, but despite the clown nose and suspenders, managed to portray the overacting actor, without overacting himself, carefully showcasing the Lead Player’s talent wrapped up in his over the top delivery.

Leigh Katz in the role of Gertrude, much like Horatio, had to spend much of the play dealing with chaos or concern for another character. The play’s events including Hamlet attacking her, and Ophelia’s collapse, required her to show much fear and sorrow as she is one of the few in the play to actually have the opportunity to feel sadness without anger. She played off Cladius, Hamlet, and Ophelia quite well.

Mat Young himself played Rosencrantz, and Julie Thaxter-Gourlay was Guildenstern. Hamlet’s two friends were somewhat bumbling, drawn into intrigue and facing divided loyalties nearly immediately upon their arrival. The pair moved throughout the theater often pained and confused trying to figure out how to deal with their friend’s odd behavior. Young and Thaxter-Gourlay shaped the two characters as in over their head, quickly losing Hamlet’s trust, and almost all control over the situation. Their costuming, which evoked a hipster vibe, added to their ill suited arrival in a world of royalty and palace intrigue.

Ryan Shea’s appearances were solid, as Bernardo, a Player, and especially as the Grave Digger. After spending much of the play as Bernardo reacting to ghosts and Laertes seizing his weapon, Shea had to take on the storied role, and held his own with Hamlet in their verbal jousting, which arguably is the only time in the entire play Hamlet is matched in a battle of wits of that nature. Compared to the more learned Polonius and Osric, only the Grave Digger among palace workers holds off the Prince. Shea’s acting as the Digger has to hold Laertes back was also spot on as the rage of Laertes was a force requiring desperate struggle to repel.

Rob Pawlikowski shined as both the Ghost, and Osric, as well as the Player King. As the Ghost he took part in a brilliantly staged scene as he and Hamlet descend the theater’s two aisles in eerie conversation before he collapses under the weight of his burden and fights to deliver his message. Later his appearance before Hamlet again is scary as he must convey so much just in how he walks. As Osric he plays the fool quite well, delivering the lines swiftly as a set up to Hamlet’s crushing of him.

Chloe Parrington pulled doubled duty as Marcellus and Lucianus, the player who delivers the “poison” during the “play within a play.” As Marcellus she was part of the early setting of the stage with Shea’s Barnardo as they reacted with fear to both Horatio’s arrival and the ghost. The roles were largely functional but Parrington, like Weisinger to a lesser degree, had to blend into the background and contribute to the action of the play, as one of the characters not destined to die but nonetheless wrapped up in the events.

Kate Fletcher performed ably as the Player Queen, and as the English Ambassador entering the room filled with death and destruction, she shows the shock that one would expect from a surprise arrival to carnage. Her entrance was slow down the aisle, observing the final acts of the protagonists before coming upon Horatio and informing all of the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It is a difficult charge for a new character to gain the attention especially as the lead actors all lay dead, but it was successful. Alas, there was no Fortinbras storming in. The often omitted conqueror of Denmark was again omitted to my disappointment, which served as the only disappointment of the entire afternoon.

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