From his entrance a few minutes into Act I, an Omar Sharif-in-Arabia “introduction” (sans horse) from the Hudson River overlook at Boscobel to the Main Stage tent, Amendt brings Shakespeare’s most interpreted and discussed character through all the well-known (and well-worn) lines and actually makes him someone fairly new to us. “Hamlet is performed probably more than any other Shakespeare play, and everyone – artists and audience alike – has opinions, expectations and ideas as to what is the right way to do the play. The guy who changes the oil in your car might say to you, ‘That actress doing Ophelia, the mad scene? She just didn’t cut it’ [which was not the case here, as Valeri Mudek’s Ophelia certainly did ‘cut it’]. So how does a company doing Hamlet for the first time put its mark on a play which has been done so many times before, in so many ways?” wrote O’Brien in the Director’s Notes.
In Amendt’s case, as with the rest of the always-superb actors in the HVSF’s stable, you do what you always do when playing off the Bard: You make it a farce. Not a farce in the traditional sense of engaging silliness (even though the HVSF finds enough of that in the play), but in the idea that what we, the audience, already know – namely the “secret” of the play, the backstory of Claudius’ murder of his brother (Hamlet’s father) and marriage to Hamlet’s mother (Queen Gertrude) and the resulting chaos, procrastination, suicide and murder that follows. And like with any work of art, it is the getting there that matters. With its ingrained sense of “experimental theater,” the HVSF gets there with brilliance and fun – terrifying fun.
Amendt is all edginess and shrieking angst as he uncovers the onionskin layers of deceit that have engulfed the crown of Denmark. Of course he is powerless to act, his sense of moral justification hampering him from exacting the revenge that he (and we) think necessary. From that moment of recalcitrance (he refers to it as “cowardice,” but that is an unfair self-assessment for a terrified teenager – especially one confronted with his murdered father’s ghost), everything around the castle at Elsinore spins deliriously into fate: the “suicide” of Ophelia, her heart broken and torn asunder by Hamlet; the “accidental” stabbing of Ophelia’s father Polonius by a jealous Hamlet; the “misapplied” poisoning of Gertrude by a scheming Claudius; the “honorable death” of Ophelia’s brother Laertes, in a duel of poisoned sabers with Hamlet; the “revenge death” (finally) of Claudius by a dying Hamlet; and Hamlet’s own death, seemingly by providential decree, leaving the Kingdom of Denmark, by default, in the hands of the orderly (and very ordinary) Norwegian prince Fortinbras.
“Hamlet’s death should make people feel exhilarated, that life is worth living and savoring every minute. It’s sort of like when you go to a wedding or funeral: Something in the ceremony will strike you, and suddenly you get a flash of awareness of the value of your own life and the preciousness of it,” says O’Brien.
Jason O’Connell plays Claudius as a smarmy politician, all manipulation and false sentiment; Gabra Zackman as Gertrude is shrewdly naïve about the plots and counterplots swirling around her. Both are perfect in what are essentially secondary roles. Ryan Quinn and Valeri Mudek as Laertes and Ophelia are the cannon-fodder for Claudius’ plots and Hamlet’s counterplots, and both win us over with their sensitive portrayals. But this play belongs to Amendt and Hamlet. Everyone else is just an addendum for the disturbed prince’s philosophical ramblings. In Amendt’s (and O’Brien’s) hands, this is a Hamlet that stakes out some new turf.
The rest of the lineup for the HVSF’s 25th summer at beautiful Boscobel-on-the-Hudson (the view looking down the river to the Bear Mountain Bridge is worth it alone) includes Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, directed by Kurt Rhodes, a lesser-known play by the Bard of Avon that asks, “What happens when two sets of twins, separated from birth, unknowingly arrive in the same town?”; and, in a departure from the Shakespeare playbook, Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, adapted by Mark Brown and directed by Christopher V. Edwards, as five actors play 39 parts with lightning speed as the hero, Phileas Fogg, tries to win a bet and save his fortunes.
Hamlet is playing Sunday, August 7 at 6 p.m.; Thursday, August 11 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, August 13 at 8 p.m.; Tuesday, August 16 at 7 p.m.; Friday, August 19 (with wine-tasting) at 8 p.m.; Thursday, August 25 at 7 p.m.; Sunday, August 28 at 6 p.m.; and the final show on Saturday, September 3 at 8 p.m. Monday, August 22 at 7 p.m. is Romeo and Juliet, the HVSF Apprentice Show.
Call the box office at (845) 265-9575 for tickets and times for The Comedy of Errors and Around the World in 80 Days. For more information about the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel, go to www.hvshakespeare.org.