“Hamlet” is essentially a play about oppression. The prince of Denmark is kept from being king by a tyrannical leader, he is being spied upon at every turn, and he cannot even trust his own mother. All forces act against him, and he has little recourse but to lash out in violence. Monty Cole’s production of “Hamlet” at The Gift Theatre brings this oppression center stage in an examination of white supremacy and how it can destroy men and women of color in equal measure.
Daniel Kyri stars as the melancholy Dane spurred on to dull revenge by the ghost of his father (Robert Cornelius, who also plays Polonius). Ophelia (Netta Walker) does not understand why her boyfriend is being so distant, and King Claudius (John Kelly Connolly) and his new wife/former sister-in-law Gertrude (Shanésia Davis) are getting suspicious of his motives. School chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hannah Toriumi and Martel Manning) nose their way into his plans, and Laertes (Gregory Fenner) stands as rival for his place in the state. Along the way, there is a lot of murder, mayhem, and monologuing.
Cole has previously reinvigorated classic work for actors of color, and his take on “Hamlet” provides ample startling new readings for an audience possibly over-familiar with the seminal text. During one soliloquy, Hamlet spray-paints, “Your silence will not protect you,” across the stage’s back wall, drawing a direct line between his masquerade and questions of respectability. Casting Claudius as a Trumpian figure means that the white military men surrounding Hamlet take on an extra sense of danger. Cole gives his Ophelia range and power, as she grows angrier and angrier at the actions of those around her. And instead of having the players play the murder of Gonzago, Kyri hauls in a TV playing “The Lion King” as a visual aid for the audience. Cole’s stage pictures have a sense of humor, as well as reach and power. His placement of Hamlet and the Ghost prove how often other productions forget their bond, and Hamlet’s enduring loss.
However, the oppression Hamlet feels should ultimately turn into defiant action, and here it reads as nihilistic defeat. Cole hands his actors a concept that works for most of the play, but rubs against the grain of the fifth act. As a result, Kyri yells himself hoarse with the effort to justify Hamlet’s continuing volatility. There is likely a way to complete Cole’s concept without betraying the text, but Hamlet’s escape into the afterlife should be as satisfying as it is tragic, and here, it felt confused — and not in a way that felt purposeful.
That said, the concept for this production was particularly enjoyable in its design elements. Scenic designer William Boles places the action behind a Plexiglas wall, so that when the actors stare out at the audience, we feel complicit in separating ourselves from Hamlet’s pain. Claire Chrzan and Michelle Benda’s lighting design reaches psychedelic highs, while Samantha C. Jones’ costumes evoke hipster youth, Beyonce, and cunning politicians.
All in all, this is a stunning “Hamlet,” a solid blend of challenging ideas and strong stagecraft. If you want your eyes opened anew to the possibilities in an old text, check out this production.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Hamlet startles in a production about oppression and contemporary troubles.
DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”
Company: The Gift Theatre
Venue: The Gift Theatre (4802 N Milwaukee Ave)