|Matthew Amendt as Hamlet Credit: Courtesy Phnoto|
With the darkening of the lights and the first of twelve loud bongs on an unidentified clock that sounds a lot like London’s Big Ben, the audience attending Pittsburgh Public Theater’s staging of "Hamlet" is brusquely transported from their everyday world to a quite different place and time. The effect is immediate and almost takes your breath away.
Whatever baggage you bring to the theater seems trivial by comparison to the lofty language and chilling scenario that follows. Shakespeare wastes no time conjuring up the chills as a pair of castle sentries on midnight watch encounter a ghost, an imperial one that was once king, now the victim of a regicide At blame, or so it appears, is his own brother, who not only inherited his throne, but also his widow.
As the title character, Matthew Amendt is angst-possessed, even before he too is witness to the regal specter. After all, he recently lost his father, and his mother wasted little time wearing widow’s weeds before wedding the new heir to the throne. It’s something that troubles him to the core.
Early in my theater-going obsession, I tried to get tickets for every Shakespeare play that came along. For the last decade or so, however, I barely encountered the Bard, partly out of a lack of opportunity, partly because of the effort it takes me to work my way through text. Fortunately, I have been keeping a record of every play I’ve seen for decades and recently checked my list to see how many Hamlets I’d seen previous to the one now getting a staging at the Pittsburgh Public Theater
The count came to three, and I have to admit that the one at the Public, the fourth, is not only the most memorable but one of the, shall we say, purist I ever witnessed Director Ted Pappas can take pride in his valiant effort to guide the cast in what happens to be his final drama as PPT’s producing artistic director.
|PPT's Producing Artistic Director Ted Pappas|
Even those unfamiliar with the plot will probably remember some of the most famous quotes taken from the play starting with "Brevity is the soul of wit." And who hasn’t heard Hamlet’s oft-repeated "To be or not to be" or "To die, to sleep, perchance to dream - ay there’s the rub. For in this sleep of death what dreams may come."
Naturally, the success of the play rests on the shoulders of its lead character and Amendt is certainly up to the task. Anxiety and distress are etched on his face, and his outrage over recent events is both palpable and kept on a slow simmer until they build in heated intensity. His feigned madness grows out of his inner turmoil, his soliloquies come off as sharp and insightfully authentic, his sense of satire is biting and ruthless and nothing feels over acted or artificial.
Some of his greatest moments occur with encounters with Ophelia (gorgeously played by Jenny Leona), his playful sarcasms thrown at the elderly Polonius (with magnificent work by Matt Sullivan), his witty castigation in which he rebukes his supposed friends, Rosenkrantz (Allan Snyder) and Guildenstern (Luke Halferty) and the magnificently directed scene in which he nearly dispatches King Claudius, caught in a vulnerable moment at prayer.
As the villainous king, David Whalen keeps his transgressions under wraps, coming off as wise, temperate and benign in true Machiavellian fashion. As his paramour/wife, Gertrude, Caris Vujcec unravels with majestic artistry, showing a believable emotional descent from her safe and secure position as queen to harried mother and ultimately as victim to her husband’s nefarious plots.
The graveyard scene provides a welcome respite of comic relief as well as a chance for Tony Bingham to shine in a impressive character role. Andrew William Miller as Hamlet’s steadfast ally and confident, Horatio, is sober and a calm in the storm, while Monteze Freeland manages to inspire disdain in a short period of time as the loathsome priest attending Ophelia’s burial.
Amendt manages to carry his acting wizardry all the way to the end in the play’s climactic scene where he duels with the impetuous, Laertes (Paul Terzenbach) matching sword blow for sword blow of engaging combat enacted under the tutelage of fight director, Randy Kravitz.
Credit James Noone for a stunning minimalist set made up of a series of arched-over columns emblazoned with golden torchettes and a massive chandelier that creates a classic tone for one of the Bard’s best known masterpieces. Also impressive are the sumptuous costumes designed by Gabriel Berry and evocative music and sound designs of Zach Moore that gilds the one of the most stellar productions I’ve seen at the Public in recent memory.
Truly a moving and rewarding experience, this "Hamlet" is one not-to-be missed. There may be something rotten in Denmark, but in Pittsburgh "Hamlet" is as vibrant as it gets.
Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of "Hamlet" is at the O’Reilly Theater in downtown Pittsburgh through May 20. For tickets, phone 412-316-1600 or ppt.org.