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REVIEW: Breathtaking Moments, Inconsistent Vision in Chainsawed Hamlet (Park Square Theatre)

Hamlet (Kory LaQuess Pullam) angrily confronts his mother Gertrude (Sandra Struthers) in Park Square Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Photo by Amy Anderson.

Revenge does not sit well on Kory LaQuess Pullam’s Hamlet. Pullam performs in Park Square Theatre’s current production, staged by director Joel Sass in a modern setting. The action moves forward at a lively pace; at the center of the production – and the thing that makes it worth seeing – is Pullam’s powerful, richly layered performance. Pullam brings exquisite emotion to the great role, especially in the great monologues, but throughout as well. Most crucially, he makes Hamlet his own, giving himself over to the role, heart and soul. This performance includes impressive voice work; some moments in Pullam’s monologues are simply breathtaking.

“Alas, poor Yorick…”. Hamlet (Kory LaQuess Pullam) examines a recently unearthed skull. Photo by Amy Anderson.

For all that, I was not entirely thrilled with this adaptation of Hamlet. It has been significantly cut to reduce the play to two and a half hours, and some of the cuts show. A more benign example is the cut of Fortinbras and his subplot from the play – not unusual for school-size productions, and one that doesn’t mutilate the play. More significant was the elimination of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, which seems unnecessary. The result of that and other deletions Sass makes is to give only the barest impression of the pre-play Hamlet – supposedly a brilliant, audacious, seductive, disarming, idealistic, and impossibly charismatic Wittenberg student.

These omissions are important because it’s this pre-play Hamlet who first greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they arrive at Elsinor and chats with them. Without glimpsing this Hamlet – even briefly – Ophelia’s Act III, Scene 2 description of the one-time “courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state” doesn’t match up with what we’ve seen. Nor does Sass give attention to the philosophical dimensions of Hamlet’s transformation: his disillusion with the great Humanist ideals that had once moved and inspired him.

One impact of this cut was that I wasn’t moved by Hamlet’s tormented trajectory from “What a piece of work is a man!” to man as no more than “this quintessence of dust.” Because we only get glimpses or scattered reports of Hamlet before the deluge – no real view of his character prior to the onset of depression, anger, alienation, and antic disposition – this production loses some of its normal tragic weight of squandered passion and wasted promise. The only Hamlet we get to see is the ruined and transformed man, which is less interesting.

There remains much to like about Park Square’s production. Maeve Coleen Moynihan’s Ophelia is splendidly understated and ethereal. One particularly lovely moment occurs at the outset of Act III, Scene 2, when Ophelia first makes eye contact with Hamlet. For just a moment, the two forget the parts they are forced to play, and Pullam and Moynihan’s faces flicker with pure and sensual excitement. And then it’s over, back to rot. Ophelia is exposed as having been set up by Polonia, and you can see Hamlet/Pullam wrestling with his heart as he turns to curse her (“Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” and all that). Moynihan physicalizes the shock of the attack; you realize all at once what the brutal exchange will cost her. Wesley Mouri also shines as a fiery Laertes.

All the players are good, experienced, and well-trained actors. All have fine moments and yet something about the production felt unfinished or at moments a little incoherent. I could not grasp the reasons for some of the choices made by Sass; this was particularly true in connection with the female characters. Why tone down the comic ridiculousness of Polonia – her ditziness and delusions of grandeur and misguideness? Yes, Polonia spies and doesn’t hesitate to plant a trap, and yes, she’s always planning for her family’s advantage – but her motives aren’t fiscal. She’s an idiot, but she wants her daughter and her son to be happy. So why have the fine Tinne Rosenmeier play the role as a pragmatic, or even scheming, calculating businesswoman? What does that add to the play, and, well, where are the clowns?

The neon arch featured in the set design reacts in color to character entrances and exits, using lighting designs by Michael P. Kittel. Photo by Amy Anderson.

Sandra Struthers gives an elegant and precise performance as Gertrude, but here again the interpretation confused me. Why strip Gertrude of any maternal feeling or genuine love for her son? If we are not supposed to believe the Queen when she says her heart is “cleft … in twain,” shouldn’t we at least be shown why? The on-stage mothers seemed gratuitously cold toward their children. Both characters are supposed to be lousy parents, but they are not monsters (although Hamlet thinks that Gertrude is). How these portrayals were grounded and how that fit into Sass’s vision of the play were unclear.

If the vision is unclear, Sass’s spare, muscular design is beautiful and effective. He has a large square of neon bars set upstage center, on a raised stone platform. Actors enter and exit through the square as it changes colors or dims or sometimes flashes to Michael P. Kitttel’s imaginative lighting design. Alice Fredrickson’s costumes capture the palpable rot that is Elsinore, but with enough quirky and occasionally whimsical touches thrown in to allow a sense of contrast.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet plays at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Kit Bix