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Chicago Arts Scene Commentary

for the Week of May 14, 2001

Theater Review:

Peter Brook’s "THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET"
at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

In a deceptively elementary way, British director Peter Brook wraps audiences in the Player aspect of William Shakespeare’s most recognizable epic drama. His international, shaved-to-the-bone touring production, "The Tragedy of Hamlet" – in a limited engagement at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier – cajoles from the artifice of play acting an honesty of the human spirit.

The director looks to the East (from Noh drama to Kabuki) for the stripped-down essence of a play set in medieval Denmark. He, therefore, concentrates on a measured breath and rhythm that trickles with a delicate subtextual urgency -- like a lake leading to an unexpected waterfall – before cascading over a torrent of eternal truths. In fact, this distilled staging has the power to wash over audiences -- speaking to a certain inevitability of the human condition over two-and-a-half intermissionless hours.

Brook and artistic collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne have essentially left enough room for viewers to linger around the corners of the text. In the process, they remove the veil of incomprehensibility often associated with the antiquated language of Shakespeare – a worthy goal for the resident Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The curvilinear intimacy of the space pulls audiences deeper into the drama inherent to the silences between the words.

Chloe Obolensky’s draped minimalist costumes and simple geometric set elements (like cushions and a fiery-orange carpet), together with Philippe Vialatte’s expressive lighting, transport "Hamlet" to the realm of ideas. Plot is rendered almost insignificant for this synergistic creative team interested in more encompassing issues like honesty, a clear conscience and acceptance of personal responsibility. Yet in his successful effort to disassemble and reassemble the text (including the removal of Fortinbras and the moving around of scenes), Brook does not lose his sense of reverence or humility before the writing.

One may think that Brooke is playing the auteur -- the various pillows and candles and percussive Asian music by Japanese multi-instrumentalist Toshi Tsuchitori emblazoned with the director’s initials. But let the experience come to you, and this "Hamlet" becomes strikingly anonymous. The sparse design serves as a canvas – or a stage-within-a-stage -- to allow the audience to put its own print of experiences onto a tragedy often tragically performed as a period piece.

In "Hamlet," the titular prince, visited by the ghost of his father who was poisoned by the current King Claudius, embarks – with trepidation -- on a journey of vengeance. Supported by his loyal friend Horatio, Hamlet proceeds to "act" mad (even inadvertently driving his beloved Ophelia to her grave) to elude Claudius and his suspicious cohorts. The scenes with interchangeable messengers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, brilliantly illustrate Brook’s focus on dishonesty. The same actors serve as the Players (another level of interchangeability and deception).

But this production cannot be summed up in a linear plot. It’s best to cite some of the most striking images: Hamlet’s comical and piercingly bittersweet jests with Yorick’s slyly knowing skull on a stick; the bird-like Polonius being propped up like a marionette by Hamlet after the old busybody is accidentally slain behind an arras; and Gertrude’s quietly sublime description of Ophelia’s death.

Every performance is perfectly calibrated and softly operatic in scope.
Adrian Lester removes all angst and pretension from Hamlet, giving the troubled anti-hero a degree of innocence and idealism that’s both refreshing and heartwrenching. It’s obvious that Lester’s Hamlet does not wish to hurt anyone; that what he’s been called on to do goes against his temperate, even playful, nature. By the time he delivers his much-anticipated "To be or not to be" soliloquy, Lester’s character is appropriately spent.

Natasha Parry’s Gertrude is more than a ruthlessly ambitious queen; her loyalties are sadly torn. Even the immovable Jeffery Kissoon’s Claudius recognizes his faults. As Polonius, Bruce Myers carries the dithering meddler to a pathetically lonely and innocent plane; Shantala Shivalingappa endows the willowy Ophelia with gracious conviction; and Scott Handy’s Horatio remains a pillar of constancy. Naseeruddin Shah and Rohan Siva in multiple roles add lush and varied timbres to this psychologically enticing oratorio.

When Hamlet decides to have the traveling group of actors perform "The Murder of Gonzago" to discern Claudius’ and Gertrude’s guilty reactions, he proclaims, "The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king."

In Brook’s stylized vision, the play’s the thing that urges audiences to climb inside their own consciences and determine the efficacy or harm of their day-to-day role playing.•

"The Tragedy of Hamlet" runs through June 2 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: $75. Call 312-595-5600.

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