Darko Tresnjak has a predilection for carefully composed stage pictures and a passion for symmetry. He’s also drawn to the arresting visual concept. In last year’s Twelfth Night at Hartford Stage, the set itself was a hedge maze, and in 2012’s The Tempest, both the set and some of the performers were dressed with words from the text.
In his current production of Hamlet, playing in Hartford through November 16th, the big concept (the central conflict is defined by “religious differences,” he says in his director’s note) is married to persistently symmetrical staging. The set – Tresnjak’s own design – consists of a low crucifix-shaped platform paved in checkerboard squares which sometimes light up and sometimes change colors, flanked by coffin-like benches at its sides and foot.
This stark symmetry is echoed in the stage groupings Tresnjak arranges in almost every scene. If two courtiers are standing together downstage right, there’s a mirror-image pair downstage left, and all four are identically posed, like statues – or rather, dancers, their feet set in a 90-degree approximation of ballet’s fourth position. Likewise, Hamlet, poised in the platform’s central medallion, is flanked by an actor on each arm of the cross, and when he proceeds downstage, they fall in behind him, one at each shoulder.
I’m not sure what these rather anal visuals are supposed to accomplish. There’s a certain loosing up later on, as things go from rotten to unruly in the state of Denmark, so maybe the formality is meant to stand for the grip of royal power. I found it mostly distracting.
The performances, too, start off quite mannered, even distant, before finding more visceral grooves. As the prince, Zach Appleman delivers his opening soliloquy, and even “To be or not to be,” as if the wish “that this too, too solid flesh would melt” or “that the Everlasting had not fix’d his canon ’gainst self-slaughter” was ironic musing and not existential crisis. But Appleman slowly becomes the most sizzling presence on Tresnjak’s stage, coming into his own with an ardent, physically aggressive plunge toward the play’s bloody final reckoning.
Likewise, Andrew Long gives us a distant, indifferent King Claudius, only gradually becoming more nuanced. Other actors, though, never even get there. Anthony Roach’s Laertes is macho and loud from beginning to end, Brittany Vicars’ Ophelia is heartfelt but monochromatic, and Kate Forbes, in one of Shakespeare's most thankless female roles, is a practically invisible Queen Gertrude.
Indeed, Tresnjak seems to have left the actors largely to their own devices, for there’s little stylistic cohesion and, with a few exceptions, he has either allowed or encouraged his cast to adopt pretty standard renderings of their characters: Polonius (Edward James Hyland) the meddling old geezer; Horatio (James Seol) the bland cipher; the gravel-voiced Gravedigger (Floyd King); the ponderous Ghost (also Andrew Long).
Speaking of whom, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in Tresnjak’s most startling and spectacular stage image, rises through the floor astride a life-size iron horse, looking more like the statue of a war hero in a city square than a soul in Purgatory.
Odd schematic choices litter Tresnjak’s odd production. Though in his program notes he emphasizes the “spying and surveillance” that suffuse this most paranoid of plays, he places a couple of very private scenes in the open court, even having Polonius brazenly hand out Hamlet’s love letters to Ophelia to the assembled courtiers, who retire to peruse them in their designated corners. Here, as elsewhere, human relationships seem to be trumped by geometric or gestural ones.
And what of the “religious differences” that apparently form the core of the director’s concept? I honestly couldn’t find them, beyond the cruciform stage set. In her dramaturg’s notes, Elizabeth Williamson alludes to “the anxiety over succession” that gripped England in the last years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, both because there was no heir apparent and because of the mutual suspicion between the Catholic Church and Henry VIII’s church-by-fiat, which many considered a usurpation, both of which are thematically manifest in Hamlet. But these issues were more political than theological, and Tresnjak’s own argument that “religious differences inform the relationships and the perceptions throughout the play” is baffling: The example he gives is Hamlet’s reference to the “incestuous sheets” of his mother’s re-marriage bed.
I found Tresnjak’s Tempest bizarre and his Twelfth Night charming. His Hamlet is neither. It’s an overly mannered and sometimes confused reading of the play which, trapped in its own obsessive quest for order and the well-proportioned tableau, loses the name of action.
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