Chicago Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ a combination devoutly to be wished

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Hamlet (Maurice Jones), the Prince of Denmark, contemplates existence in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Hamlet, directed by Barbara Gaines. | Liz Lauren Photo

Of all the ways to catch a killer, few are as psychologically devious as the trap set by Hamlet. Certain that his uncle Claudius murdered his father, Hamlet arranges for a play about a king killed by his brother to be performed at court. Claudius’ reaction to the bloody plot will reveal his guilt, or so Hamlet believes. But Claudius isn’t the only one “Hamlet” director Barbara Gaines’ indicts in her hard-hitting take on one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays.

As Hamlet explains his plan to reveal his uncle’s guilt, the lights come up abruptly, putting a glare on everyone in the audience. It’s seems unlikely that any murderers are among Chicago Shakes’ patrons. But surely everyone is hiding something. The sudden, harsh illumination that accompanies Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” speech exposes an audience that’s been hidden in shadow. That unforgiving light makes Claudius and everyone around him feel horribly exposed.

‘Hamlet’ ★★★1⁄2 When: Through June 9 Where: Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater, 800 E. Grand, on Navy Pier Tickets: $48 – $88 Info: Run time: two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission

It’s one of many high-impact scenes that comprise Gaines’ graphic take on the classic tragedy. She’s made revisions to the text, most notably in that Fortinbras does not sweep in at the end to take over Denmark. The play is the better for it. Instead of leaving us with a character we’ve spent no time with and don’t care about, Gaines ends with a portrait of devastation within two men we’ve come to care deeply about over the previous two-and-three-quarter hours.

Shakespeare’s plot is simple: The ghost of Hamlet’s father (Derrick Lee Weeden) haunts the battlements of Elsinore. The ghost wants revenge on Claudius (Tim Decker), the brother who murdered him and married his wife, Queen Gertrude (Karen Aldridge). Hamlet (Maurice Jones) is more than ready to provide the kind of justice that has a body count. Almost from the start, Gaines sets a foreboding tone, making it clear that Denmark’s court is going to be a charnel house before the night is over.

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Gaines’ take on the iconic story is heavy-handed and on-the-nose at times, particularly when it comes to Ophelia’s drowning scene. But on the whole, “Hamlet” has a haunting power. It succeeds as a thriller, a tragedy and a doomed coming-of-age story. And right when it seems that the evil in Denmark is too relentlessly grim to bear, Shakespeare gives us the gravediggers (Mike Nussbaum and Greg Vinkler). Their homespun philosophizing and so-bad-they-re-good jokes provide sweet relief from the ominous actions surrounding them. Where Hamlet questions the meaning of life with bone-deep sorrow and cynicism, the gravediggers greet it with a full flask and a ribald song.

Gertrude (Karen Aldridge, center) is caught between her son Hamlet (Maurice Jones, right) and her new husband and king, Claudius (Tim Decker, left), in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Hamlet,” | Liz Lauren Photo

Gertrude (Karen Aldridge, center) is caught between her son Hamlet (Maurice Jones, right) and her new husband and king, Claudius (Tim Decker, left), in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Hamlet,” | Liz Lauren Photo

Jones anchors the ensemble; his Hamlet is volatile, deeply wounded and possibly of unsound mind. Yet even when Hamlet seems to have left his reason behind, there’s a crackling, electric current of method to his madness. Karen Aldridge’s Queen Gertrude is wholly believable as she moves from cool, collected magnificence to wailing in terror. Larry Yando’s verbose Polonius is every inch that dithering uncle everyone tries to avoid at Thanksgiving. As Polonius’ daughter Ophelia, Rachel Nicks morphs from giddily-in-love to abjectly broken within the space of a few scenes. As Polonius’ son Laertes, Paul Deo Jr. captures the hot-blooded rage of an adolescent who — just like Hamlet — is driven to avenge his murdered father. As Hamlet’s ride-or-die Horatio, Sean Allan Krill is the best friend everybody needs.

Finally, there are Alex Goodrich and Samuel Taylor as Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (respectively). With their entrance, they say a thousand things without uttering a word. You know exactly who these men are merely from watching their body language.

Scenic designer Scott Davis has fashioned a series of massive drapes to provide a backdrop for most of “Hamlet.” It’s a versatile look that makes moving from throne room to bedroom believable. A pair of huge scrims allow Mike Tutaj’s vaporous projections of the ghost to literally tower over Hamlet, smoke oozing from its eye sockets. It’s the hallucinatory visualization of a supernatural force bent on unleashing havoc. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design is a silent scene partner throughout “Hamlet,” color and tone deepening the mood as the action moves from midnight shadows to unblinking daylight.

But the core pillar in “Hamlet” is the title character, a young man who can credibly feign madness and while simultaneously convincing the audience he might not be mad after all. Jones captures all the contradictions within Hamlet. The play is indeed the thing here. And it is wonderful.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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