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‘Hamlet’ loses much of its horrifying madness in Gift Theatre staging

Shanésia Davis and Daniel Kyri in The Gift Theatre’s production of Williams Shakespeare’s HAMLET, directed by Monty Cole. Photo by Claire Demos.

Shanésia Davis and Daniel Kyri in The Gift Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s "Hamlet," directed by Monty Cole. | Claire Demos Photo

“Hamlet” starts in a world of shadows and death, as if Shakespeare was intent on a throwing the audience headlong into a world out of joint. Among the first characters on stage is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the terrifying manifestation of a Danish king murdered by his own brother. The late king’s restless spirit is roaming the battlements of the castle Elsinore, hell-bent on vengeance.

When: Through July 29
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $35-$40
Info: thegifttheatre.org
Run time: Three hours, including one intermission

It’s here that the Gift Theatre’s uneven production of “Hamlet” first wobbles. In director Monty Cole’s staging, the ghost wears a hospital gown and shuffles across the stage in a pair of sandals and crew socks. There’s no majesty to the apparition, no fearsome dignity. It’s a shaky beginning for a horrific tragedy that ends with two families dead, their bodies sprawled in blood.

Cole makes bold choices but not all of them work. With one notable exception, the staging feels under-rehearsed; there were missed lines and late entrances opening night. Individually, these problems are small and perhaps not even noticeable to those not thoroughly familiar with the text. Collectively, however, they erode the story’s momentum and its power to shock and disturb.

Daniel Kyri in The Gift Theatre’s production of Williams Shakespeare’s HAMLET, directed by Monty Cole. Photo by Claire Demos.

Daniel Kyri as Hamlet, in one of the most profound scenes in The Gift Theatre’s staging of the Shakespeare classic. | Claire Demos Photo

There are no problems with Daniel Kyri’s take on the title role. He’s endlessly expressive and has a solid sense of the language and its inherent rhythms. (If nothing else, “Hamlet” will make you want to sign up for whatever Kyri’s doing next.) As Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, Shanesia Davis is also strong. There’s a crucial scene where Hamlet accosts his mother in her bedroom, a confrontation that ends up with a fatal stabbing. Kyri and Davis make that scene gripping and shocking – two attributes that should run the length of “Hamlet.”

But for all the heavy lifting Kyri manages, “Hamlet” falters. Many in the 11-person cast rush their lines, as if the words are going to escape if they aren’t deployed at a rapid-fire pace. The wall-to-wall plastic sheeting providing a buffer between the cast and the audience doesn’t help. Rushed diction and actors performing behind a supersized shower curtain results in more than a few blurry words.

Cole has made bold choices beyond caging the cast behind a layer of plastic. Hamlet’s spray paint scrawl (“Your silence will not protect you”) is chilling and brings the play’s themes of corruption and dishonesty square into today’s culture, where silence often equals complicity with any number of societal evils.

In addition to that plastic sheeting, scenic designer William Boles has created a space that evokes both the fading splendor of Elsinore and the muck of a shallow grave. Hamlet et al are literally crawling in dirt sometimes, the splendid cream-colored walls of Elsinor fading into filth where they intersect with the ground.

Alexander Lane, Casey Morris, Daniel Kyri and Robert Cornelius in The Gift Theatre’s production of Williams Shakespeare’s HAMLET, directed by Monty Cole. Photo by Claire Demos.

Alexander Lane (from left) Casey Morris, Daniel Kyri and Robert Cornelius in a scene from The Gift Theatre’s production of “Hamelt.” | Claire Demos Photo

Cole loads up on contemporary references – Laertes (Gregory Fenner, electric with intensity) and Ophelia (a beguiling Netta Walker) play video games and eat Cheetos. The night watchmen guzzle cans of beer. When the traveling players perform a play designed unmask precisely what’s rotten in Denmark, it includes clips from “The Lion King.” (Specifically the part where Scar murders his brother, King Mufasa.) Costume designer Samantha C. Jones has everyone in generically contemporary garb, a choice that hints at the story’s timelessness.

On the minus side, Jeffrey Levin’s sound design is jarring; the music (which runs the gamut from Roberta Flack to a string version of “Billy Jean” to the sweeping power chords of Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor to snippets of hip-hop and rap) starts and stop abruptly. Overall, it interrupts the action more than it enhances it.

Yet there are moments when “Hamlet” truly excels. Many of these are connected to Gaby Labotka’s fight choreography, which looks dangerously authentic. The Gift Theatre’s intimacy – nobody is more than about 10 feet from the stage – ups the ante considerably once the steel starts flashing.

Would that it were so throughout. As it is, “Hamlet” is as memorable for its missed opportunities as it is for its account of a family twisted by murder, ambition and madness.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.