Park Square's 'Hamlet' prompts the question: Is it time to take a break from Shakespeare?

Amy Anderson

Amy Anderson

Controversial question: Do we have too much Shakespeare?


Park Square Theatre

Yes, yes, glory of the English language and all that...but when powerful and important plays like Alice Childress' Wedding Band become almost forgotten, do we really need a steady stream of Macbeths, and so many Hamlets that the skulls pile up like peanut shells?

Park Square Theatre's new production of the Denmark downer prompts the question, because as director/adapter Joel Sass strains to bring new zip to the play he zips right past the reasons we're still doing Hamlet in the first place. If we really need to try this hard to freshen up the material, maybe it's time to put the petulant prince on the shelf for a few years.

Park Square often touts its record of drawing large numbers of students to shows, but even though Hamlet and his pals are dressed like they're heading off to Hogwarts, many teens are going to leave this production wondering what the hell just happened. Sass leads with attitude, conveying the impression that we should be caught in a gripping drama...but never actually catches us.

That's a bummer, because there's a lot of young star power on stage here. Kory LaQuess Pullam plays Hamlet, in what should be the capper to an incredible year for the busy and multitalented artist. Ophelia is played by Maeve Coleen Moynihan, who raises the level of any show she's in; and Wesley Mouri, a lead in the sensational Flower Drum Song co-produced by Park Square and Theater Mu, is Laertes. Sass even tapped the powerful Theo Langason to voice Hamlet's dead dad.

The director has also designed a wowzer of a set that's unlike anything you've ever seen at Park Square. Its centerpiece is what appears to the audience as a giant hollow cube with fluorescent tubes running along its front edge, with LED runners casting Hamlet and other cast members in changing hues as they perch on its craggy inner surface. The box's rear edge lines a screen on which video designer Kathy Maxwell depicts Hamlet's castle as an Eastern Bloc monstrosity.

Sass succeeds at giving each scene a distinct energy, but fails to pull his vision together into a coherent whole. In quiet moments, Pullam is full of coiled energy and we lean forward, waiting for lighting to strike; but when it does, Shakespeare's legendary phrases pour forth in a torrent, leaving us straining to follow Hamlet's meaning. Similarly, Moynihan's Ophelia goes richly mad, but her big scene falls flat because the world she's raging against hasn't been cohesively drawn.

It doesn't help matters that the older generation don't give the younger actors much of a target for their furies. As Gertrude and Claudius, Sandra Struthers and Charles Hubbell look like Pullam could tip them over just by throwing his book at them.

The blocking also tends to keep the performers pinned in place, curtailing the physical acting that can help to bring Shakespeare to life. (By way of contrast, consider the way director Joseph Haj uses the entire Wurtele Thrust in the Guthrie's current Romeo.) Further, Sass' liberties with the script speed things along, but also cramp the characterization.

In its attempts to open things up, this Hamlet ironically renders the play opaque. When Horatio (a stalwart Kathryn Fumie) eulogizes her fallen friend as "a noble heart," we pretty much just have to take her word for it.