“Cast thy nighted color off,” Hamlet’s mom Gertrude, hastily remarried to his fratricidal uncle Claudius, begs of her mournful son. She might have been speaking to Joseph Haj, director of the Folger’s slick and unencumbered new gloss on what we’re used to thinking of as the Bard’s most psychologically complex play.
James Kronzer’s blocky, all-white set offers the first clue of what we’re in for, a visual metaphor for the production’s clean simplicity. Elsinore? Try Apple Store. Deposed King Hamlet’s ghost (a suitably traumatized Todd Scofield) has scarcely begun lobbying his son for vengeance before we see it isn’t just the castle that Haj and star Graham Michael Hamilton have lifted from the shadows: It’s the once-overgrown psychological landscape of the melancholy Prince himself.
Clear-cutting decades or centuries of accumulated inference — Hamlet’s Oedipal lust for Gertrude, his existential disdain of action for action, his self-awareness as a participant in a fiction — this feels like Hamlet for beginners, but that’s no slight. Unburdened of contradiction and played almost as a straight-ahead potboiler — close as it can be without cutting out Hamlet’s iconic half-dozen soliloquies, anyway — the show feels fresh, like a revelatory solo acoustic take of a song you’d thought you could never stand to hear again.
Hamilton is spry and magnetic in the title role, and it seems intentional that his emotional palette here is confined to primary colors — mostly red and blue. He’s more into in shoving, shouting, and spitting than sulking. So it isn’t the mere fact that he looks like a hybrid of Kiefer Sutherland and Peter Sarsgaard that sometimes makes this feel like an Elizabethan episode of 24. But he also seems truly heartbroken when Ophelia (Lindsey Wochley) returns his love-letters, dumping him at her father’s insistence.
The motivations of the supporting cast have been streamlined, too. Polonius, that meddling dad, is less of a clown than in many versions — he still talks too much, but Stephen Patrick Martin makes him a devoted father and loyal subject rather than a dissembler. Caludius and Gertrude (David Whalen and Deborah Hazlett) seem blithe and unconflicted about their brother-killin’ and in-law-beddin’, which makes Hamlet’s rage seem actually, well, sane. It isn’t a sophisticated take, but it sure isn’t dull.
That set isn’t the only technical element that impresses. The play-within-the-play Hamlet arranges to verify that Claudius was indeed his father’s killer is staged as a kind of art-film, silhouettes projected onto the faces and bodies of the actors, Velvet Underground “Exploding Plastic Inevitable”-style. It’s a stunning effect. Jack Herrick’s original score, which he performs live during the show, feels intrusive during Hamlet’s soliloquies but is elsewhere an effective mood-setter. And fight director Casey Dean Kaleba gives the climactic fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes a very palpable speed and danger.
As the famous author of the play’s Oedipal reading once observed elsewhere, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And sometimes vengeance is just vengeance. Call it Hamlet: The Rest Is Ass-Kicking.
Hamlet is at the Folger Shakespeare Library through June 6. Performance time is approximately two hours, 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
This review appears in today’s Examiner.