Over there in Washington D.C., there is definitely something rotten in the state, most likely in that big white house a few blocks away from the Shakespeare Theatre Company, but it certainly isn’t Michael Urie in Hamlet currently playing until March 4th. Urie, the gifted and versatile actor who just recently majestically walked the delicate tightrope between comedy and tragedy in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song at Second Stage (happily opening on Broadway in the fall of 2018), does a similarly exciting trick bringing comedy and wit into the tragic lead role of the formidable Hamlet. That Prince of Denmark seems to be a touch stone for certain serious young male actors; a certain type of tough climb that can usher one up the ladder of respectability, and Urie most definitely rises to the occasion with a purposefully unsteady swagger perfectly reflecting the inability of this young noble to act out his revenge inclination. Urie is a revelation as Hamlet, and an exciting thrill to behold, it’s just a shame that this solid Shakespearean theatre company that is surrounding him didn’t join Urie on that higher and fascinating plane that is vibrating at a whole other exciting frequency. They seem to be as awestruck by him as we are.
On an exciting modern shiny and cold metal set constructed with a classic sensibility of staging mashed together with a technological edge and a compelling nod to a fascist political state of mind by designer John Coyne (STC’s Macbeth) with lighting by Yi Zhao (LCT’s Pipeline), this production of Hamlet tries to elevate the proceedings with inventive vantage points enlisting our current obsession with text messages, iPhones, and security video systems. The compelling first scene with Horatio (Federico Rodriguez) and the soldiers, now security guards (Avery Glymph, Chris Genebach, Brayden Simpson) in full bomber style jackets, courtesy of a strong costume design by Jess Goldstein (Public’s Plenty), drinking coffee in a corporate-looking office watching numerous monitors, presents us with what appears to be the dead king overtaking the video system. It’s like a scene out of a spy movie when the evil genius interrupts all broadcasts in order to speak to the masses (Projection/Video Designer: Patrick W. Lord). My initial reaction was of pure excitement, that a fun and inventive new perspective of how to tell this ghostly tale was going to unravel itself before us. And in some ways it does, unravel, that is, but not in the way it was intended or the manner I first anticipated. It is as if someone suggested some modern conceptual ideas to director Michael Kahn (the current artistic director of STC), including the confusing fascist statement, that is sadly not expanded on or explained very well. And while he embraces the ideas of fascism, modern video surveillance, and communication styles here and there, they are only utilized superficially. The idea of a ghost-King living inside the pixels of a video system could have been compelling, leading a debate whether the visions are supernatural or imaginary. Unfortunately, after the initial (poorly conceived) visitation, the concept is never to be seen again. The ghost does return twice more as is customary, but in the more standard-issue solid white clad form of actor Keith Baxter (STC’s Measure for Measure) in a sea of dry ice fog in order to have the typical face to face with the mighty good Urie. My imagination went straight to a hoped-for visual of a lone and frightened Prince struggling on a barren stage to stay engaged with a huge pixilated image of the ghostly King’s face overtaking the whole stage glaring down on him, but that was “not to be”. We are sadly only given the normal, generic, and the uninspired staging instead. It was like watching high octane energy come face to face with moderate and fine; disappointing our senses and heightened anticipation.
Michael Urie (Red Bull’s The Government Inspector), I must say, is operating on a whole other electric plane, giving us a highly original take on the indecisive Prince, peppered with a neurotic and hypnotic edge unlike any I’ve seen. He is adding layers of fun, sarcasm, and play on top of the grief stricken purgatory that he finds himself, elevating every moment Urie is onstage. The play is truly alive when he’s present, even as it mucks around in a world of decay and distrust. The grave scene is one of its most engaging, as Hamlet confronts the abyss of the grave with unselfconscious banter about death and dying with the grave digger, played with playful spunk by Baxter.
Unfortunately the classical actors from this well established company that attempt to match the vibrations of Urie are having difficulty rising to his plane where a better and more thrilling version of this play might have existed. I’m not saying anyone is giving a bad performance, they are not. Robert Joy (STC’s King Charles III) as Polonius easily snares some of the spotlight from Urie, as the foolish part basically commands. Oyin Oladejo’s Ophelia (Soulpepper’s Spoon River) is also thoroughly engaging, as she desperately and reluctantly, as any teenager would, gives up her cellphone to her father, and then subsequently looses her grasp on reality, falling into the abyss of the grief stricken. Ryan Spahn (Primary Stage’s Daniel’s Husband) and Kelsey Rainwater (STC’s Macbeth) as the complex pair of former school-mates of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, do there best fleshing out their parts, but just like Madeleine Potter’s Gertrude (Broadway’s An Ideal Husband), they fall victim to the unsteady vision of the director and find themselves abandoned on a different level, far below the hovering Urie. They are all seasoned pros though, that is clear, giving us solid characterizations and honoring every word of that complex text, but unfortunately, they are being guided in the most traditional manner by an artistic director used to giving his audience a very understandable and well versed Shakespearean production, but one without much edge.
Before arriving at the gorgeous Sidney Harman Hall, home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, my companion and I, over brunch, talked about the need for a strong vision and a compelling reason to place another Hamlet onto the stage. Last summer, at the Public Theater, Sam Gold, with Oscar Isaac as Hamlet, came at the text with that exact thing, playing with the story in a way that brought us to a whole other plane of existence (click here for the review of that production). Unfortunately, this production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet leaves Urie battling his demons in an emotional frenzy all on his own, hovering and vibrating on a whole different plane and frequency. If they others had made that leap, helped up by their director, this Hamlet would have been explosive. But as orchestrated here, Michael Urie wins the duel in the end, and dies a very honorable death. All on his own.