For a theater company to tackle “Hamlet” is a courageous undertaking. Hailed by many as Shakespeare’s greatest play, and arguably his most personal one, “Hamlet” has frightened away more than a few potential audience members with its dark tone. Luckily, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s Brooke Ditchfield and Chelsea McCarthy, two immensely talented actresses and directors (and serious Bardophiles) have taken on Shakespeare’s most famous work, trimmed it to just over two hours, played up the wit and humor, and turned it into perfect outdoor fare for a beautiful Vineyard evening.
Of course, in order to produce a successful “Hamlet,” one needs a monster of an actor. Enter Scott Barrow, a successful New York–based thespian and theater educator who, after getting his start with the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s Amphitheater Shakespeare series two decades ago, has gone on to perform at many of Manhattan’s most respected Off-Broadway houses, including the Mint, the Sheen, the Acorn, and New York Theatre Workshop.
It’s been many years since Barrow last appeared on stage at the Amphitheater, but McCarthy and Ditchfield had both determined that they wouldn’t do “Hamlet” without him. Barrow was happy to comply, since despite a lengthy career in which he has played many of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, he had never fulfilled what many actors consider their lifelong dream. Barrow has taken on the challenge with remarkable dedication, bringing his considerable talent and experience to the production, and completely owning the role.
In every scene in which he appears, Barrow manages to mesmerize the audience with his very honest and personal approach to the part. It was a conscious decision by the lead actor and the directors to play against the traditional depiction of Hamlet as the “melancholy Dane,” and give him some serious spark, which makes the production wonderfully vibrant and compelling. Barrow plays the role with as much compulsion to expose and punish the guilty as any vengeance-seeking Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood antihero, but with a considerably less macho, more cerebral approach. This Hamlet parries with wit as well as he does with a sword.
“What’s often overlooked in ‘Hamlet’ is that the character is very witty, and quick and funny,” says Ditchfield. “We decided we wanted to play against a depressive Hamlet. That makes for a very long and boring night in the theater. If you can ground it in humor, it makes him accessible and human.” Barrow concurs, saying, “I think the idea of the melancholy Dane is so antithetical to the given circumstance of his life.”
Adding to the very personal aspect of the character are the multiple soliloquies addressed to the audience. The up-close and personal setting of the Amphitheater (closer to the Shakespearean-era venues than the traditional contemporary theater) helps the audience to truly relate to the story’s hero. “They’ve really taken advantage of the space,” says Barrow of his co-directors. “I’m able to see every person in the audience every second. I’m not looking into darkness. I think that’s what makes this production unique. The audience is so involved and so complicit.”
It’s very difficult to make some of the world’s most famous theatrical speeches fresh, but Barrow manages to pull off this feat, bringing sincerity and even humor to every “Hamlet” standard. Although the titular character carries the bulk of the dialogue in “Hamlet” (over a third of the lines in the original four-hour version are his), no performance would work without a strong supporting cast. Ditchfield and McCarthy were well aware of that in approaching the production, and they have managed to recruit some of the Island’s most talented actors (both year-rounders and seasonal residents), some of whom have not been seen on the Amphitheater stage for many years.
A standout is Peter Stray as Ophelia’s father Polonius. The London-trained professional actor, writer, and director brings a veteran Shakespearean and comedic actor’s presence to the production, and he wins the audience over with his lighthearted, masterful treatment of the role.
It’s a joy to see veteran actors Shelagh Hackett (Gertrude) and Paul Padua (Claudius) taking on their roles with the professionalism Island audiences have come to expect from these two talented actors.
John Robichau returns to the Amphitheater after a lengthy hiatus to team up with McCarthy in the scenes featuring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, playing the famous duo with heightened humor as pally, fun-loving chums dressed in goofy garb.
Other Amphitheater regulars include Liz Michael Hartford as Ophelia, Mac Young as Laertes, Xavier Powers as Bernardo, and Jonah Lipsky as Horatio.
In two minor roles, newcomer Toby Esposito proves himself an actor to keep an eye on. Hopefully he will be appearing in future Shakespeare productions in larger roles.
As much a major player as any in “Hamlet” is the ghost, and for this production, a talented team led by Robichau has provided a huge two-man articulated puppet that truly comes to life, accompanied by eerie whisperings by a cast dispersed throughout the woods. In its introduction in Scene One, the impressive construction even manages to startle the audience a bit. The scene where Gertrude is embraced by her spectral late husband is positively chilling and very effective.
All in all, the two-hour production is surprisingly fun for a tragedy. The beautiful setting, where nature adds a magical touch with birdsong and, on opening night, a scene-stealing rabbit, really adds to the experience, and some contemporary touches, like modern dress (expertly handled by Amy Sabin Barrow) and a few cellphone correspondences, bring a fun, fresh approach to the play.
This is not your father’s “Hamlet” — the one you were forced to endure as a teenager as part of your cultural education — but it may be more of your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s “Hamlet” — from the days when Shakespeare determined to provide full-on accessible entertainment to a crowd with little tolerance for tedium.
“Hamlet” outdoors at the Amphitheater in Tisbury, Wednesday to Saturday, 5 pm, through August 11. Tickets available at the door, cash only, the day of the performance. Adults $25 and juniors (under 30), $15.