It’s a fundamental truth of human psychology: Anger boiled down to its rawest form is an impenetrable sadness. When he first appears onstage at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Jason Chanos’ Hamlet is held hostage by his melancholia, but he’s about to replace it with something hotter and easier to express. It doesn’t take him long to get drunk on rage.
The “sweet prince” of Denmark never met a man he didn’t mistrust. And he certainly has his reasons. As William Shakespeare’s famed revenge tragedy opens, the bleach-blond teenager is enduring the phony celebratory mood surrounding the marriage of his widowed mother, Gertrude (Jan Rogge), to his late father’s brother, Claudius (Mark Robbins). Part of the boy’s crankiness arises from the fact that his father’s body was barely cold when his mother took to a new bed. As he tells his pal Horatio (Cedric Hayman), “The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.”
The arrogance of that rushed marriage — and everyone’s embrace of it — is like a full-body cramp that he can’t walk off. His angst is exacerbated tenfold when his father’s ghost (Phil Fiorini) appears before him, confirming suspicions that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Hamlet doesn’t just have an ax to grind — he personifies it. He’s as cold and calculating as a terrorist.
Director Sidonie Garrett has judiciously cut Hamlet to a sprint — three hours that play to Hamlet fans and novices alike. The show is as easy to follow as a storybook but never loses its air of vengeance.
Popping up from Gene Emerson Friedman’s set are three colorful locales that share a foundation made of mortar and human bones — a structure not far removed from Hamlet himself. Chanos plays him like the most charismatic senior in high school, the one who’s as adept at debate as he is in sports. Getting laughs in all the right places while girls swoon at his every move, he charms peers and superiors alike — all the better to persuade those closest to him to let down their guard. By the time he acts out his “baser anger,” they’ve forgotten he’s an animal.
When audience members can turn their attention away from this white-hot performance, they’ll notice Robbins’ Claudius and Rogge’s Gertrude steering their characters through a dizzying array of emotions as their reign gradually begins to melt. Of the supporting players, Robert Gibby Brand’s Polonius and Phil Fiorini’s Player King are most enjoyable; Brand exhibits a flamboyant connection with the language, and Fiorini’s traveling thespian (who becomes a key missile in Hamlet’s arsenal) is hilariously pompous.
There’s nothing particularly off-kilter about the rest of the cast (Scott Cordes’ grave digger, for example, is like a Medieval surfer dude) — except Cinnamon Schultz’s Ophelia. The mad flower pricked by Hamlet’s sting comes off as bratty and pouty, and Schultz wields awfully familiar mannerisms. When she goes bonkers, the scene plays like a scene; it’s a drive-by breakdown and not organic to the big picture. The way Chanos grips this production, he wouldn’t love her at all. He’d use her and move on to the next hamlet.