[THEATER REVIEW] Guthrie celebrates 60 years with the play that began it all, Hamlet


Fair Use: Guthrie Theater website

BACK IN BLACK. Hamlet wears predictable black – he is the only character who does not change costume – which reflects his unwillingness to let go of his father and his resulting fixture in the past.


The Guthrie Theater’s 60th-anniversary show pays homage to the play that first brought the theater to life in 1963: William Shakespeare’s classic revenge tragedy Hamlet. Central to the Guthrie’s latest adaptation is the unwavering timelessness of the play. The audience is freely allowed to interact with the play’s centrality to the Guthrie: it was the first play they performed, the last play they performed at their original Vineland Palace location in 2006, and again, the play they use to commemorate their history. Perhaps it’s for this reason that no particular era is invoked by director Joseph Haj’s production, which, narratively speaking, works remarkably well. The show is free from snags of period accuracy and intricacy, and, as a result, moves streamlined through its 2-hour 45-minute runtime. Two major directorial decisions dominate the production: the movement of Hamlet and Ophelia’s “Get thee to a nunnery” scene to their earlier Act 2 confrontation, and (shockingly) Ophelia’s reveal of pregnancy in her madness. The former results from the insertion of an intermission after Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” monologue – an unusual but strategic choice, and the latter – well, it elicited several gasps from the house.

Jan Chamber’s strikingly brutalist set design captures attention without detracting from the performances. Wrought in hard lines and edges, the stage reflects Hamlet’s perception of Denmark: cold, unforgiving, and prison-like. In conjunction with Robert Weirzel’s expert lighting design, which waxes and wanes between dulled light streaming through jagged windows and eerie silver-blue spotlights at the ghost’s appearance, the technical design is adeptly off-putting enough to suggest that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. Additional scenery was scarce and the set was unadorned for the majority of the show; however, larger pieces occasionally rise through a concealed trapdoor on the stage when necessary. Notably, piece movement occurs in Gertrude’s room and at Ophelia’s grave, both of which are in high contrast to the other: one featuring warm gold tones and intentionally placed room accents, the other a gravelly mound of dirt and an angled hole. Likewise, props are used minimally and intentionally. Hamlet delivers his Act 3 monologue kneeling among his old love letters, which Ophelia attempts to return at her father’s advice; later, the same letters are revealed to be folded into the flowers that Ophelia hands out when in the throes of madness.

Perhaps refusing to settle in a single era is this Hamlet’s way of transcending time.

Adding to the sense of timelessness is costume designer Trever Boen’s ambiguous modern dress. Though contemporary in design, nods to the classic period costumes of Hamlet can be found in the puffed sleeves and the garment lines. Like their surroundings, the royal court was dressed in stiff fabric and cold (albeit jewel-toned) hues; Horatio and Gertrude are the only characters to wear softer, warmer tones – perhaps because they are the closest to Hamlet’s heart and thus stick out at times against the grey concrete of Elsinore. Ophelia’s costume design in particular stood out: as she becomes more detached from reality, her clothes become floatier and less structured, moving down the color gradient from elegant gold-shot green to alarmingly whimsical lilac. Another highlight was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are both dressed as delightfully tacky mirror images of one another, paired in bold plaid, navy khaki, and clashing cricket sweaters. Hamlet, of course, was in predictable black – he is the only character who does not change costume, which reflects his unwillingness to let go of his father and his resulting fixture in the past. Individually, the characters were incredibly distinguishable – wigs and makeup changed so dramatically for double-cast actors that I had to check my playbill to confirm that indeed, Fortinbras and Guildenstern were played by the very same man.

Overall, Haj’s production was remarkably accessible, if lacking nuance. Highlights included Grayson DeJesus’s performance as Laertes, who was filled with just as much love as he was anger, and Ray Dooley’s entertaining though unusually sympathetic Polonius. The production would be impossible to mention without musician Jack Herrick, who plays several instruments to solidify the mood in each scene. His underscoring is subtle but carries Shakespeare’s words far into the audience. Less effective was Ophelia’s pregnancy. Though logistically the choice worked, it was at odds with the text, which includes a scene in Act 2 where Hamlet shames Ophelia, imparting that any man or child she would ever have would be destined to become a sinner. Slightly more successful was the placement of intermission; however, it left a significant gap between Ophelia’s appearances and thereby undercut her progression into madness. Other than those two major directorial choices, Hamlet doesn’t leave many holes unfilled, but it did feature one inconsistency: though the soldiers bear rifles, guns are never seen used beyond the opening scene, leading viewers to wonder why not keep consistency. Perhaps refusing to settle in a single era is this Hamlet’s way of transcending time. Ultimately, Haj’s technically striking production doesn’t aim for nostalgia in repetition but doesn’t pose any new questions either.

Hamlet is playing now through May 21.


This review was written as part of an assignment after the sophomore field trip to see Hamlet at The Guthrie.