Hamlet as you’ve never seen it

Stunning production opens Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 75th season

Dan Donohue is mesmerizing as a hipster Hamlet who dangles between madness and sanity, alternately snarky and rueful. You can’t take your eyes off him.

Dan Donohue is mesmerizing as a hipster Hamlet who dangles between madness and sanity, alternately snarky and rueful. You can’t take your eyes off him.

Photo By Dave Cooper

The problem with staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that it’s so familiar that giving it the edge of surprise is difficult. How to make it fresh without diminishing the depth of its tragedy?

Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s stunning new production that opened its 75th season on Feb. 26—one of four plays opening that weekend—succeeds brilliantly at freshening up the story, but it does so at some cost to the play’s emotional impact.

Consider, for example, the famous “play within a play” scene, during which Hamlet watches Claudius’ reaction to confirm the truth about the murder of his father. The play is staged like an exuberant hip-hop musical, with music and dancing and the actors singing their lines rap style. It’s exciting and even appropriate for this modern-dress staging, but it overwhelms the drama between Claudius and Hamlet, and the moment of recognition is lost.

On the other hand, many scenes unfold as if in a new light, revealing elements that would have remained concealed in a more traditional staging. For example, Hamlet’s father’s ghost, played by deaf actor Howie Seago, speaks with Hamlet in sign language, and their exchanges are surprisingly moving because of this intimacy.

Much of the credit for the production’s tremendous energy must go to Dan Donohue, who plays Hamlet as a man dangling between sanity and madness, alternately rueful and snarky, unmoored by his obsession to avenge his father. You can’t take your eyes off him, and that alone makes his lines seem like they’re being said for the first time.

No matter how often you’ve seen Hamlet, you’ll love this production. It’s in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 31.

Of the three other plays that opened, my favorite was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ roiling cauldron of sex, alcoholism and family ties and lies set on a Mississippi plantation in the 1950s.

The entire play takes place in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom, where a large white bed is set off by sheer curtains and a blood-red carpet. Brick (Danforth Comins) is the son of the plantation’s patriarch, Big Daddy (Michael Winters), and Maggie (Stephanie Beatriz) is his once-poor wife. He’s drinking himself into a stupor each night, and she’s gone twitchy with sexual frustration, all because of some mystery related to the suicide of Brick’s best friend and, possibly, one-time lover, Skipper.

Danforth Comins and Stephanie Beatriz dance around the bedroom in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Photo By Dave Cooper

Meanwhile, Big Daddy is dying of cancer, which everybody knows but him and Big Mama (Catherine E. Coulson). Brick’s older brother, Gooper (Rex Young), and his prissy wife, Mae (Kate Mulligan), are scheming to get Big Daddy’s fortune and adding to the lies and deceit that pervade this family circle.

Acting is all in this play, and the players here are terrific, especially Beatriz, Comins and Winters. Cat is in the Bowmer through July 4.

The other plays now up are Pride and Prejudice, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, in the Bowmer, and Well, written by the New York performance artist Lisa Kron, in the New Theatre.

Austen’s work is beautifully staged, but it’s not really meant for theater. The drama is almost too subtle, too novelistic, for the stage. It’s hard to care about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from a distance.

Well is what happens when a performance artist tries to meld her form, one-woman monologues, with conventional scripted theater into what she calls an “avant-garde, metatheatrical piece.” Kron’s shtick here is to bring some of the characters from her monologue—her mother, characters from her childhood—onto the stage with her—or, rather, with her theatrical alter ego, also named Lisa (Terri McMahon).

But she’s unwilling to tell a conventional story, with beginning, middle and end, so she lets the characters take over the play, and by the end they’ve subverted the enterprise and the play drifts into nothingness.

Fortunately, Kron’s created a rich character in Ann, Lisa’s mother, played with crusty good humor by veteran OSF actor Dee Maaske. Ann loves her daughter and puts up with her self-absorption, but in the end she shows that an endearing character is worth more than all the experimental tom-foolery in the world.