Hamlet is the world’s most famous play. Period. The story, characters, turns of phrase, are so familiar it’s nearly impossible to dig into it without turning up handfuls of cliches. How refreshing, then, to see Cooperative Performance Milwaukee, a talented new company on their inaugural production, shake the dust off and show us the play as it might have been first seen, or as if discovered by a smart, lonely teenager and recognized as her own.
There are several great reasons to see this show: One, it takes place at the elegant Villa Terrace, whose stucco walls, statuary and spacious rooms throw you effortlessly into the world of Elizabethan intrigue. Second, it’s played outdoors, with a calm summer evening turning into night, the moon rising over the lake; what could be better? The play opens with a briskly-pantomimed funeral, full of ritual obsequies, all very proper. A strange figure darts in: spider-thin, with a shaggy haircut, clad in tight black jeans and jacket, and practically collapses in front of the bier, radiating waves of grief like a heavy stone dropped into a placid pool.
Hamlet was the original disaffected college student; subsequent ages saw him as a model of melancholia; as a poet maudit; an existentialist, or a spoiled brat. As played by Catherine Friesen, she’s a gothy, emo kid, thrust into a political situation for which she was never emotionally fit. Friesen is the other great reason to see this show: tough, fragile, quivering with intensity, one raw nerve. You can see how this hyper-conscious youth could corrode the court heirarchy like acid; Claudius is wise to be wary. Friesen’s spring-steel intensity, much more than her sex, is what really counts in this interpretation. She’s fascinating, almost painful, to watch: by turns despairing, paranoid, playful, heartbroken, and nihilistic, she finds her way to a sort of peace just before the plot collapses into the mass carnage that famously closes the tragedy. In one beautiful moment, Friesen even acknowledges Lake Michigan while speaking of “a sea of troubles,” nicely capturing her mood while working with the site; a kid looking out over the lake, wondering about ending it all.
Director Don Russell has a fine sense for space, using courtyard, balconies, archways and staircases to create deliciously deep-focus stage pictures, accentuated by subtle and effective lighting. Performing outdoors naturally entails a certain loss of subtlety, but the actors are marvelously strong-voiced: easy to hear, even under the sound-drinking sky. Russell plays everything at a distance, creating a sense of watching a movie without closeups, as if we were seeing it in a diorama, or through opera glasses, but also in a fresh light, with all its glorious weirdness. The text is radically stripped-down, to the point that it sometimes feels like the Cliff’s Notes version. But the play undeniably moves fast, scenes crashing into each other with the percussive rhythm of a crime drama. A sound track of electronic/classical mixes and bursts of angsty guitar generates a vibe of youthful rebellion.
Russel’s choices for the play’s back-stories may not be that evident in the action—the ghost, for example, is played by three actors— but Russell has reasons, and that makes all the difference. These are specific, identifiable human beings, not generic classical figures. As Claudius the usurper, veteran actor Mark Corkins is unusually animated, not at all a melodrama villain. His kid-glove treatment of Hamlet foregrounds his carefulness as a ruler, while somewhat dulling the sense of danger. With most of Gertrude’s lines cut, Cheryl Roloff has precious little to work with; her Queen/mother is almost a cipher; a woman whose identity depends so much on a man that she was able to quickly change husbands, seemingly without much reflection. By contrast, Kat Wodtke gives us a rather butch Ophelia; with riding boots and an assertive manner, no fainting damsel. It is a bit odd when, having lost her mind, she sings a bit from For Colored Girls Who Have Committed Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf: jarring, but definitely thoughtfully-selected. Zach McLain, in the thankless role of Hamlet’s wingman Horatio, seems a trifle too relaxed for someone who’s witnessing their best friend and the government collapsing at the same time, but Mack Heath brings an understated sense of humor to Polonius, an adviser who is not as smart as he thinks he is.
Cooperative Performance Milwaukee advertised “ a new hearing” of this play, and, while there are certain unavoidable tropes—Yorick’s skull, the spooky ghost, the poisoned blade, et cetera—we really do end up seeing the play anew. It’s not a simple theme, like “the effects of mental illness on a troubled family,” thank goodness; there are political overtones as well. This could easily be a portrait of the royal family of Syria, or Egypt, or the Bush White House: history ending as catastrophe.
It’s always wonderful when young artists engage a complex classic work and make it theirs; even better, to make it interesting—which in the end, is the best thing for theater to be.