“Hamlet” @ HVSF

The esteemed Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and rather then rest on their laurels they decided to present Hamlet for the very first time. I admit, I was a bit surprised to hear they had never done this play before (as a relative neophyte to the joys of Boscobel, I just assumed they had already done it). However it seems that Terry O’Brien, the artistic director, had been waiting for the right time. And, my God, was this a production worth that wait.

Hamlet is arguably the greatest play ever written. The five hundred year old work still has scholars (dramatic and literary) debating and dissecting the words, the actions and the characters. Even people who have never seen nor read it are familiar with it, as so many of its lines have become part of the colloquial lexicon. I’ve loved the play since I first read it in my 11th grade English class, and through the years my appreciation for the play has only grown. Hamlet suspects his Uncle killed his father, the King, in order to gain the throne of Denmark. His suspicions are confirmed by a visitation from the ghost of his father, which sets the course for revenge in place.

O’Brien’s unrelentingly spare but vivid production doesn’t rely on a trendy concept or revisionist thinking. Stripped of scenic design, and with only a few props, the director and his superlative cast delved deep into the marrow of the play. While I’m still surprised it took HVSF 25 years to get around to Hamlet, the wait was worth it: this is the best production I have seen at Boscobel. And I doubt I’ve ever seen a more focused audience; a pin could drop during the silences and the palpable tension continued to build until the full-throttled denouement.

At the center of the play is Matthew Amendt, an immensely talented young actor who offered a Hamlet of considerable distinction; connecting with the audience in a way that I have never seen before. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an interpretation of the character that so effortlessly grabbed the audience’s sympathy quite like Amendt. His choices were big and bold, but possessed a clarity and understanding that one usually finds in the most seasoned actors. Amendt’s youth works well for the characterization, and make Hamlet’s vacillation both entertaining and fascinating.

Amendt was also fortunate enough to be surrounded by a top-notch ensemble, with special kudos reserved for Jason O’Connell’s guilt-ridden, uncertain Claudius, Richard Ercole’s perceptive and canny Polonius and Valeri Mudik’s devastating Ophelia. One slight reservation, Gabra Zackman, while ultimately effective, read far too young as Gertrude (in the opening scene, she looked more like Hamlet’s peer than mother).

This was a staggering Hamlet; visceral, pulsating and demanding. The way O’Brien stages the scenes between Hamlet and his dead father hints at an unsettling horror that feels straight out of Tolkien. Even more vivid is O’Brien’s masterstroke that comes after the last line of the play, in which the death beckons forth those killed in the final ten minutes of the play. (I always enjoy the way the directors try to incorporate the vast Boscobel lawn in their productions, this was the most thrilling use of the space I’ve seen). The costumes and heavy metal music added to the overall pulse of the production. I can only hope that HVSF considers a return engagement in the near future because this is a production that needs to be savored as often as possible.