The Play’s the Thing

A performance of the Round Table Theatre Company’s “Hamlet” at Guild Hall
Evan Daves plays Laertes in “Hamlet” at Guild Hall. Barbara Jo Howard

“Every other line is famous,” whispered an audience member in astonishment to her friend during a performance of the Round Table Theatre Company’s “Hamlet” at Guild Hall on Sunday.

That is true. It’s hard not to smile at lines like “To thine own self be true,” or “Frailty‚ thy name is woman‚” and a dozen other familiar phrases. Round Table has provided a program filled with welcome “fun facts” and timelines about both “Hamlet” and the life of the playwright, which should help Shakespeare virgins to feel more at ease.

Morgan Vaughan, the director, has chosen a timeless time, with costumes by Yuka Silvera that conjure royalty, nobility, and wealth, along with the well-worn clothes of the common man. Brian Leaver’s sets are minimalist, often using Sebastian Paczynski’s impeccable lighting to set the scene. Ms. Vaughan uses the John Drew Theater to its fullest, with adept staging in the aisles and wings that helped prevent the action from becoming stagnant.

For those who have never read “Hamlet” nor seen the many versions of the play, the films, the Klingon version, or the rock opera (featuring the song “He Got It in the Ear”)‚ here is a quick rundown of the plot.  Hamlet (Tristan Vaughan), Prince of Denmark, has returned from studying in Germany to find his father dead and his mother, Queen Gertrude‚ played with regality by Dianne Benson, marrying the king’s brother, Claudius (Jeff Keogh).

Already greatly upset by this (a man marrying his brother’s widow was considered incest at the time), he then meets his father’s ghost, who informs him that the king didn’t die quietly but was poisoned, by none other then his brother, Claudius. At that point, Hamlet transforms from a disillusioned and grumpy young man to a prince whose sole focus is revenge.

In the meantime, Hamlet’s school friends, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dressed amusingly in school uniforms and played with understated comedy by Sawyer Avery and Peter Connolly, have been brought to Elsinore by the king and queen to ascertain Hamlet’s mood.  Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain and fahter to Laertes and Ophelia, blames Hamlet’s bad temper on his love for Ophelia, but when a tryst between the two is arranged Hamlet appears to be distracted by the goings-on at the castle and no longer interested in Ophelia.

A troupe of visiting actors provides Hamlet with the chance to restage a roman a clef of his father’s killing in front of the court, causing Claudius to storm out and express a moment of guilt as he kneels to pray. Finding his uncle thus, Hamlet cannot bring himself to slay him — a scene that Shakespearean scholars have analyzed ad infinitum since the play was first performed. The Round Table Company, in the program, provides an interesting and creditable reason.

From there on, things only get worse for poor Hamlet. He mistakenly kills Polonius. Claudius tries to send him away to England (with plans to have him murdered). His girlfriend goes nuts. Laertes wants him dead. The play was originally called “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” so, let’s face it‚ everybody dies.

An uncut “Hamlet” would run over four hours, so quite a bit has been snipped in this three-hour version‚ mostly nothing that would be missed by today’s audiences (except the end of the last scene featuring Prince Fortinbras — an interesting directorial choice). 

The cast performs wonderfully. Mr. Vaughan is a charming Hamlet — the audience sympathizes with his suffering and indecisiveness as he learns about his father’s death and his mother’s betrayal. His interest in humanity of all kinds shines through, from his “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy to his tender ruminations on the skull of “poor Yorick.” Unlike so many other actors, Mr. Vaughan nails the comedic aspects of the role, but sometimes brushes over the more melodramatic moments, perhaps for reasons outlined below.

Mr. Keough as Claudius is comfortable with the language of Shakespeare and makes a kingly king who seems to show genuine concern for his nephew, but there is a lack of chemistry between the royal couple that makes it difficult to believe that much of anything happens between those “incestuous sheets.”

Fabrienne Botero, a newcomer, is a standout as the somewhat modern Ophelia, who loses her mind when her father dies, and John Tramontana plays Hamlet’s friend Horatio with a wonderful sense of loyalty and care.

But in a play this intense, it is the clowns who rule the day. Josh Gladstone’s Polonius is portrayed with such outrageous strokes, but also with such a depth of humanity, that the audience feels a genuine loss at his death. Can “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and a turn of Mr. Gladstone as Falstaff be far behind?

Evan Daves, last seen at the John Drew in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” plays both Laertes and the Player Queen. He evoked bursts of giggles from the audience, especially during the play within a play, and later brought a ferocious quality to the returned Laertes bent on revenge.

Michael Bartolli, as both the Player King and the yes man Osric, provides levity during some of the most dramatic moments.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” Polonius declares — made even more amusing appearing in this, the longest of the Bard’s plays — and it is hard to be economical with words and deeds in a work of this fame and import. Ms. Vaughan has done an admirable job.

However, although the play has been cut down, it is still long, and it seems as though the actors make up for it with shortened reactions. This is a play of bombs being dropped. It seemed that the bombs were often brushed away, and with a cast this good, one can only imagine it was to keep the evening moving steadily.

Nonetheless, this production of “Hamlet” is well worth attending. See it with friends, and prepare to discuss the psychology of the Prince of Denmark over drinks well after the play has finished, as theatergoers have for the past 400 years.

Tristan Vaughan considers the skull of “poor Yorick” in “Hamlet.” Barbara Jo Howard