There is murder and magic in the air at Boscobel in Garrison this summer, in the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s first-ever production of “Hamlet.”
There is, of course, a dead king, his usurping brother, a queen who wed her dead husband’s brother, and a ghost who wants revenge for a murder most foul.
And there is a prince whose world is a-swirl around him, who sees clearly what has happened and is bereft, beset, overwhelmed.
The magic is provided by director Terrence O’Brien and his first-class company of actors, led by the exceptional Matthew Amendt, whose performance as the doomed Dane is a revelation. Hamlet is a role for young actors, those who’ll one day grow into Macbeth or Lear. It is an unfair progression, really, like starting an ascent of Everest at its summit.
But Amendt is up to the climb, aided by a sherpa of the first order. O’Brien’s considerable storytelling powers are all over this “Hamlet,” from a spellbinding Ghost to a final tableau of the souls departed. It seems impossible that in 25 years at Hudson Valley Shakespeare, artistic director O’Brien hadn’t yet tackled the story of the great Dane, but it is so. And it is well worth the wait. The poetry that fills the tent — delivered by a wonderful company adorned only by Dan Scully’s lights, Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s costumes and William Neal’s sound design — is reason enough to plan a summer’s night in Garrison. “Hamlet” runs in repertory with “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Comedy of Errors” through Sept. 4. (Go to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival website for a calendar and tickets.)
As Hamlet, Amendt’s eyes well at a moment’s notice at the thought of how rotten things have become in the state of Denmark. While tears may come and his voice may crack, this Hamlet sees clearly that his uncle/stepfather is “no more like my father than I to Hercules.”
He also sees the weakness of a mother who would transfer her love so quickly from brother to brother.
But Hamlet also sees his own shortcomings. Why, for example, can’t he avenge his father? How can a traveling actor weep by just imagining the dead Hecuba while Hamlet — who has real reason to wail and take revenge — merely talks about his woeful plight?
Amendt doesn’t howl and chew the scenery. Of course, there is no scenery under the Boscobel tent, but he wouldn’t nibble anyway. It’s not that kind of performance. He finds the humor — suggesting that it is “thrift” that has driven his mother to put the wedding so close to the funeral — and the horror — ashen at the sight of his dead father risen.
The method in Amendt’s magic is in its restraint, letting us see the wheels turning as he works to keep those around him on their heels, declaring Polonius a fishmonger, chastising his mother for her too-soon wedding, toying with his uncle-stepfather about the whereabouts of Polonius’ body.
Amendt’s clear phrasing awakens everything he touches, even Hamlet’s problematic treatment of Ophelia. In his “get thee to a nunnery” speech, he piles Hamlet’s self-loathing onto his disdain for his mother’s fickle nature to suggest that the world should stop adding to its population.
Poor Ophelia hasn’t a prayer.
O’Brien does more to make this a different “Hamlet.”
For one, there’s Hamlet’s father’s Ghost, as creepy a specter as you’re likely to see, reimagined as a figure literally bound by Death.
A black-robed figure holds fast to a thick rope that encircles the ghost. The dead king’s lease on life is now a leash from the other world as Death speaks the words that the ghost mouths. He is haunted and haunting, akin to Marley’s Ghost in “A Christmas Carol,” a real bone-rattler. His time is short — and we can see why — but he must pass on his message before being dragged away. It is a far cry from the regal, rather aloof ghosts of other productions. The impact is astonishing and spurs the young prince onward.
The Hudson Valley production also introduces a Polonius of a different stripe. The funny lines are still there, but in Richard Ercole’s capable hands, the old man is less a buffoon and more a concerned and caring father and adviser.
When he bids farewell to Laertes (the pitch-perfect Ryan Quinn) early in the action, Ercole’s Polonius does not recite the line we read in high school: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” It is, instead, “Neither a borrower nor a lender, boy,” a change O’Brien found in one of the three complete texts of the play from which he built his script. It sounds strange on the ear, but it fits the moment: a father sending his son into the world. And rather than rattling off his advice in a doddering, scattered fashion, Ercole lets each land before moving on to the next. While it cuts down on the lighter moment that a comic Polonius would provide, it seems truer to the bearing that a royal adviser would have.
Jason O’Connell’s Claudius is a man who came to power through trickery and is therefore hyper-vigilant for schemes that might imperil his reign. O’Connell brings marvelous colors to Claudius’ speech about wanting to repent but wanting to keep what his sins have gained him.
As his queen, Gabra Zackman is torn by her son’s grief, but seemingly powerless to resist Claudius’ advances. When Hamlet corners his mother in her chambers, Zackman plays well the speech “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul” — you can see the pain writ large on her expressive face — but somehow the air seems to go out of this scene and it lacks the power it might have had.
Likewise, the lovely Valeri Mudek brings a winsome quality to Ophelia but didn’t find the character’s depth, wandering the stage aimlessly in her final appearance. Ophelia’s madness is real, but Mudek doesn’t register it in a fully changed nature. Hamlet’s fake madness seems somehow more real.
Hamlet’s transparent college chums — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — are played with just the right note of detachment by Katie Hartke and Lucky Gretzinger. Their betrayal to Hamlet is their loyalty to the king.
And Quinn’s Laertes wears his heart on his sleeve: honest, forthright and wronged. Michael Borrelli’s Horatio, likewise, is solid and reliable, as any true friend should be.
Wesley Mann as the Gravedigger and Stephen Paul Johnson as the Player King deliver unforgettable moments of truth, in performances that seem effortless.
“Hamlet” is a play with a body count and the final scene is fast-paced and powerful, with a fine bit of swordplay, a swooning queen and a usurper who gets what is coming to him. But O’Brien has one last bit of visual poetry for us, as the bodies rise and take their place out on the expansive lawn.
It seems there’s a bumper crop of bodies at Boscobel this summer.
(William Marsh photos, from top: Matthew Amendt as Hamlet; Richard Ercole as Polonius, Katie Hartke as Rosencrantz and Lucky Gretzinger as Guildenstern; Valeri Mudek as Ophelia.)