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UMD's Hamlet a first-rate production

What's the big deal about Hamlet? Hamlet wrings every ounce of passion out of an audience with its story of duty, betrayal and incest. In doing so, it takes us to our own depths. Hamlet is such a key part of our cultural canon that one who doesn'...

What's the big deal about Hamlet? Hamlet wrings every ounce of passion out of an audience with its story of duty, betrayal and incest. In doing so, it takes us to our own depths. Hamlet is such a key part of our cultural canon that one who doesn't know the play probably also lacks some important understanding of what it means to be human.
The University of Minnesota-Duluth's new production of the play, as promised, is a tremendous ensemble work. From the acting to the lighting to the staging and sets, this production is cohesive, coherent and entertaining.
Consequently, first kudos go to director Kate Ufema, who did a tremendous job putting it all together. The hours of work definitely show in all the little details.
Ufema also adapted the play, which normally runs four hours. In cutting it to just under three (including intermission), Ufema correctly notes the malleability of Shakespeare's works in her program notes.
But as any Shakespeare fan can tell you, any production that moves or changes a single line of text will arouse the ire of purists.
While not exactly a purist, I do have those leanings, and I did question some of the adaptations. For instance, the famous "to-be-or-not-to-be" soliloquy of Hamlet is divided up between Hamlet and Ophelia. This speech, which spawned endless movie titles and cliches, is an important part of Hamlet's character. Although it worked as dialogue, it still felt inappropriate to put those lines in another mouth.
A ghostly reappearance, with one line at the very end of the play, hurts the play more. Actually after the curtain call, it clipped the beginnings of a much-deserved standing ovation for the cast Thursday night. Ouch!
Finally, some effects didn't go well. The ghost, rumored to be quite stunning, looked merely like a spotlight on the floor from the balcony (audience members at stage level were more impressed). Similarly, amplification of the well-played ghost (Dave Selinger) made him hard to understand.
But these are quibbles. The play is well staged, the set is nice, the lighting is good, and, best of all, the acting performance is nearly flawless.
These actors really bring the text, with all the nuances that make it so powerful, to life. (I say that despite the complaint of one young audience member at intermission, who leaned over to his friends and joked, "Somebody tell me what is going on. I am so lost.")
Some highlights: Hamlet is played brilliantly by Brandon Breault, who was met with whoops and "bravos" after this performance. Without a good Hamlet, the play doesn't work no matter how good the rest of the cast is. Breault brings the right combination of introspection, outrage, angst, self-doubt and cunning to his part. He really nailed the part, which any actor will tell you is no small task.
Amber Bjork, in the role of Ophelia (in the interest of disclosure, Bjork is a coworker) shines. With a moderate number of lines, this character undergoes remarkable change, from a playful girl joking with her brother to a frightened young woman to final insanity upon the death of her father. Bjork covers this range with commendable versatility and energy.
Among the play's most amazing scenes is that "to-be-or-not-to-be" scene. Following this speech, the dialogue between Hamlet and Ophelia is very well played. And Ufema has extended the scene -- an adaptation I like --reconciling the two lovers without a word of dialogue. It's electrifying.
Hats off also to Robert DuBois, for his work as Polonius, Ophelia's father and a pompous busybody. Jared King, Adam Hummel, Aimee Trumbore and Thomas Karki also turn in fine performances, for the roles of Horatio, Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes respectively.
All told, this is as solid an evening of entertainment as you're likely to find in the Twin Ports right now. The last Shakespeare production I saw was a national touring company, and this college production rivals its professionalism.
If opening night was any indicator, seats are available. It would honestly be a shame if that theater weren't packed every night for this play. Hamlet runs April 13 to 16 and April 19 to 22 at UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center.

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