Hamlet is a marathon of a play, at least for the actor playing the lead. In the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s first-ever production of the Bard’s most famous tragedy, that honor belongs to Patrick Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick has played Romeo, Henry V, and Coriolanus for the CSC—demanding roles, to be sure, yet none so much as the melancholy, brilliant, charismatic, deadly Prince of Denmark, who must be all these things—in quick succession if not simultaneously—while speaking some of the most famous lines ever penned, obsessively punning, pondering the mysteries of life and death, and reserving enough energy to hold his own in a climactic swordfight at play’s end.
It is no wonder, then, that by intermission Kilpatrick seems exhausted. Though he finds a bit of a second wind in Act Two, ultimately I was left with the impression of a runner attempting his first marathon, his focus almost entirely on the technical things he must do to make it through the race: breathing, pacing, and, in theatrical terms, articulating and projecting his voice to fill the huge outdoor stage at the Patapsco Female Institute, where the CSC performs each summer. Such focus does not allow him the flexibility or the freedom to explore the seemingly infinite depths of Hamlet’s ever-changing character.
Though no wonder, it is unquestionably a shame, because the surrounding production, directed by Ian Gallanar, is quite good. For those unfamiliar with the plot, Hamlet, crown prince of Denmark, is visited one night by the ghost of his father, who reveals that his death was no accident, as the official report claims—rather, he was murdered by his brother Claudius, who promptly married the widowed queen and claimed the throne for himself. The upshot for Hamlet, already shaken by his mother’s apparent lack of grief and repulsed by her sexuality, is that he must avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle. But it is no easy thing to kill a king, even one as repugnant as Claudius, and so Hamlet, notoriously, delays … and delays … and delays, with disastrous consequences not only for himself but for nearly everyone he touches.
As Claudius, Steve Beall carries himself commandingly, his confident façade falling away only in private, as when he prays hopelessly to God to forgive his foul crimes; indeed, Beall’s delivery of the conscience-stricken usurper’s prayer is as good as I have seen. My only gripe is that for much of the play, Beall makes a very impatient villain. It’s understandable to grow restless as Polonius or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern babble inanely, but Beall fidgets and rolls his eyes even to hear welcome tidings from his hand-picked ambassador to Norway, overkill in an otherwise well considered performance. Beall is also creepy as the ghost of Hamlet’s father (an increasingly common bit of double-casting, it seems).
As for Polonius, per usual, the witless counselor steals every scene, including his gruesome death at Hamlet’s hands. David Tabish hides the old man’s scheming behind the too friendly smile of a clown on the verge of senility, and his high-pitched voice is the perfect instrument for long-winded dialogue. Michael Boynton is well cast as Laertes, Polonius’s callow son, whose ridiculously complicated attempt to avenge his own father’s murder creates nearly as much chaos as Hamlet’s.
The revelation in the family, however, is Rebecca Ellis as Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter and the sometime object of Hamlet’s affection. I have long felt that Ophelia, who loses her mind following her father’s death and lover’s exile, is the second most difficult role in the play; most actresses, in my experience, have particular trouble with the mad scenes, which too often end up grotesque rather than pitiful. Ellis has no such trouble— her performance is sensual yet understated, always affecting, and filled with wonderfully specific moments, my favorite being the two “hoots” she gives Claudius immediately prior to one of her more puzzling lines: “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter.” Laertes is never more insightful than when he says, heartbrokenly, of his sister: “Thoughts and afflictions, passions, hell itself / She turns to favor and to prettiness”—an equally apt description of Ellis’s performance.