Playwright: William Shakespeare
At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. on Navy Pier
Contact: ( 312 ) 595-5600; $40-$67
Runs through: Nov. 18
BY CATEY SULLIVAN
There's an exquisitely unbearable tension in the moments just before Hamlet and Laertes launch the blood bath that ends this production. You know how the joust will end, yet in the frozen seconds before the frenzy is unleashed, the intensity becomes so heightened, the suspense so fraught, you feel your skin is going to fly off.
Such is the power and exhilarating theatricality of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Hamlet. There are infinite reasons Shakespeare's tragedy of a dispossessed son still sears to the bone more than 400 years after it debuted. Director Terry Hands makes them resonate in a lightning-paced, razor-wire production that illuminates the harshest aspects of a stark world defiled by greed, ambition and feral-eyed vengeance.
The sense of unease and dread that permeates Hamlet steeps Hands' production from the start. It's a freezing, pitch-dark night, the sentries of the castle Elsinore are just-this-side of snapping, minds consumed and skin twitching from the palpable but undefined ... dread that defines the very air around them. Something's rotten—something potent enough to drive a person mad.
Of course, we learn soon enough what's haunting the state of Denmark. Prince Hamlet's father has been murdered, his uncle Claudius has usurped the monarchy and his mother Gertrude—both new widow and newlywed—is reveling in lust.
Hamlet here is Ben Carlson—an actor one is at first tempted to dismiss as a generically brooding hunk: He enters as a thundercloud in black, standing out like a malignant Johnny Cash in a wedding celebration that's all blinding, white glitter and frivolity. But that's a cleverly planted misperception. Carlson's Hamlet is no sulkingly over the top malcontent. He's a combination of whipsmart intelligence and desperation, his words flying out at the speed of comets, barely able to keep pace with his thoughts.
But Hamlet's intelligence is matched—and in the end consumed—by overarching ambition. He doesn't just want Claudius dead, he wants him in hell. Carlson nails the complex combination of man who is both profoundly wounded and believes he can play God—he creates a rich, intriguing Hamlet indeed.
As Claudius, Bruce A. Young doesn't take the easy route of portraying an easily defined villain. When Claudius's crimes roar up to haunt him, Young is a portrait of a man haunted and hunted by anguish. Also memorable is Barbara Robertson's Gertrude, a vapid, dim bulb blinded by sparkly baubles and good-looking men. When Hamlet forces her to see the ugliness that she's become a participant in, Robertson seems to age a decade, morphing from simple coquette to doomed woman.
Using polished mirrors and ebony surfaces, scenic and costume designer Mark Bailey provides an atmosphere that is at once opulent and spare, his costumes richly evocative creations in shades of black, white and—in one pivotal scene—shimmering gold and blood red.
Also see online listings of opening dates www.windycitymediagroup.com/theateropenings.html and ongoing shows www.windycitymediagroup.com/theatershowings.html. Look for the **** for special GLBTQ interest.