All Things Entertaining and Cultural
For years, I have collected “Hamlets,” going hither and yon to see any production I could find. By now, I’ve seen more than 100 renditions of Shakespeare’s story about the perplexed Prince of Denmark, my favorites being productions that starred Alex Jennings, Adrian Lester, and David Tennant in the lead.
Blanka Zizka’s staging for Wilma Theater now joins that list of favorites. For numerous reasons, the most outstanding being the witty, virtuoso performance by Zainab Jah as the Dane.
Zainab Jah may become another of my collections. I’ve seen this remarkable actress only three times, but on each of those occasions, she has illuminated the stage bringing vibrant life and intelligent thought to her parts.
Jah was a revelation as Prudence, the woman of the world responding to change in 19th century Zimbabwe in Danai Gurira’s “The Convert.” For that smart, versatile performance, in which Jah riveted the audience with a speech about assimilating to Western culture while maintaining African roots and loyalties, the actress earned the Philadelphia Theater Critic’s Award for Best Supporting Actress of 2013. This fall, she gave another excellent performance by bringing great humanity to Charmian, Cleopatra’s handmaiden in McCarter’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Jah’s Hamlet is another stunning portrayal. While always being accessible and realistic in the role, she reveals all facets of Hamlet’s complex personality. She is sullen, cold, and moody when Hamlet is interrupted in his reading by Claudius denying his request to return to school at Wittenberg instead of remaining with the royal family in Elsinore. She is properly defiant and terse in Hamlet’s answer when Gertrude suggests he seems grieved at his father’s death instead of recognizing or acknowledging his ongoing sadness. She can show valiance and resolution when Horatio and Marcellus attempt to prevent Hamlet from following the ghost. She shows great fellowship with and confidence in Horatio. She is jocular when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern visit until Hamlet discerns they are spies who cannot be trusted. She is sincere with Ophelia during Hamlet’s first encounter with and shows the method in his madness in the somewhat feigned second meeting. She is direct and congenial during Hamlet’s response to the players. She engaging taunts Polonius, her Hamlet showing respect, and even affection, for the old counselor, even as he thwarts the self-satisfied diplomat’s springes for woodcocks.
Jah is a complete Hamlet who can show the innumerable sides to the character while having each be consistent with the talents, stratagems, and intelligence of an individual being. She thrills as she negotiates her various relationships with Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, and Horatio. She keeps the tone of all these associations clear and is commandingly engrossing when Hamlet is alone and delivering one of the gorgeous soliloquies Shakespeare writes for him.
Energy and zeal also enter into Jah’s performance. She is a spry, active Hamlet, ready for action and equally quick in meeting thrusts and parries whether answering impertinent questions or facing Laertes in the climactic fencing match.
Watching Jah’s Hamlet, one sees the remarkable creature Horatio eulogizes when he speaks of a great mind o’erthrown. In keeping with Shakespeare’s script, Hamlet delays his killing of Claudius, but Jah’s Hamlet is more careful and cautious than indecisive. You see her contemplating her task. Her Hamlet doesn’t shy away from his deed as much as wait for the right instant to exact his and his father’s revenge.
Best of all, Jah affects no antic disposition. Hamlet’s gibing with Polonius is an exercise in wit you can believe would amuse Hamlet and befuddle Polonius whether Hamlet was playing at madness or just spending another day tweaking a pompous fool’s nose in the corridors of Elsinore. As Polonius notes, answers like “words, words, words” and “you cannot, sir, take from me anything that I would not willingly part withal” are as logical as they are baiting and clever.
Jah’s Hamlet is aswirl in the scholarly, political, and practical matters of his time. The prince’s breeding and education shows, as does the depth of his feeling and understanding. He can joke while serious about the election of his uncle, Claudius as king and the hopes he may have had to succeed his father to Denmark’s thrown. He can chastise himself about his procrastination in fulfilling the ghost’s bidding. He chastises Gertrude in a brilliant presentation of the closet scene in which Hamlet confronts his mother in ways that awaken her conscience while frightening her more about his possible madness.
Jah plays everything well, but she is masterly in big moments like the closet scene, Hamlet finding Claudius praying at the most opportune time to dispatch him, Hamlet ordering Ophelia to a nunnery, Hamlet instructing the players, Hamlet mocking Polonius (even though he tells the player not to), and Hamlet sparring with the gravedigger and speaking of Yorick to Horatio.
Then there are the famous speeches, Hamlet’s various self-recriminations and contemplations that earned him the sobriquet, “the melancholy Dane,” “melancholy” being a word he uses to denote himself. Jah plows into them with intensity and sincerity. She lets you see inside Hamlet and follow every maundering and notions he has whether they be about his father’s death, his mother’s marriage, a comparison between his father and Claudius, the counterfeiting of emotion as the lead player does for Hecuba, frustration or disgust with tardy action, or the canon against self-slaughter.
Jah’s clarity is moving. Through her you understand Hamlet and regard him as the intricate individual he is. This is a man who can consider all the factors that impinge on his life and on the kingdom of Denmark. This is a man who can do more than philosophize and comprehend cause, effect, and the various ramifications a chosen course will foment.
Jah shows us the thoughtful, sensitive, multi-faceted man Hamlet is by being a composite of all his faults and virtues, by being able to convey both mirth and the loss of it, and by making her portrayal lively and virile enough to make us care about and be fascinated with Shakespeare’s convoluted tragic hero.
To Blanka Zizka’s credit, Zainab Jah’s performance is not the only remarkable element in the Wilma production. Zizka has created an Elsinore that is dense in atmosphere and rife with intrigue. Even as she incorporates the subplot of Fortinbras and his assaults on Denmark, she focuses on the rot Marcellus refers to and the prison Hamlet mentions in setting the milieu for Hamlet’s criticism and dissatisfaction Rot is physically symbolized by showers of black gravel that pour down between scenes at Elsinore and that match the muck surrounding the stage, in which lurk several swords and daggers to be used during the course of Zizka’s production. The gravedigger spews more gravel around during his momentous scene.
Elsinore looks like London’s Chalk Farm of the 70s or the part of today’s South Bank that sits under Waterloo Bridge and is a haven for skateboarders. The walls of the royal castle are magnets for graffiti and repetitive posters announcing lectures or performance pieces. The outer setting look suggest decay and disorder, as if the castle is not respected and street punks deface Claudius’s stronghold with the same impunity Fortinbras once attempted to attack it.
Zizka makes as much good use of Yi Zhao’s lighting as she does of Matt Saunders’s set. Early scenes on the battlements of Elsinore are dark, gray, and give a strong impression of the air that bites shrewdly and makes guards thankful for relief. The cellars to which the ghost lead Hamlet appear dank and dusty, suspended particles seeming to be visible in the white light Zhao reserves for the ghost while all the rest is in near darkness. One vivid effect comes when Claudius recognizes “The Murder of Gonzago” as his own crime and demands light so he can leave the chamber housing the play. Zizka suddenly floods the set with overhead lighting that brightens it as thoroughly as a baseball stadium and, incidentally, lets you truly take in the handsome wood, the circular stage, and various bridges Saunders designed for Elsinore’s interior.
The clarity of Jah’s portrayal pervades the entire production. Zizka’s “Hamlet” tells Shakespeare’s story thoroughly while capturing its nuances. The director aims for no great theme. She is content to let a great tale, incisive poetry, and muscular prose do their work to bring “Hamlet’s” majesty forward.
The approach works. Shakespeare has provided all the texture “Hamlet” needs to be engrossing. Jah, Krista Apple-Hodge as Gertrude, Ross Beschler as Horatio, Brian Ratcliffe as Laertes, Sarah Gliko as Ophelia, and Ed Swidey as a number of characters, including the lead player, do their jobs to add quality and consistency to Zizka’s concept. Gliko deserves special commendation because the few bizarre sequences in Zizka’s otherwise unstylized staging involves Ophelia walking in circles while standing at a 30-degree angle and being held at arm’s length by either Polonius or Claudius. It’s almost as if Ophelia is in some kind of trance or is being so consciously manipulated Zizka wants to express the pressure Polonius puts on his daughter by going into this unrelatedly odd staging technique.
Gliko and the overall production are so good, the gimmick does not ruin the tone or impact of Zizka’s work, but scenes with Ophelia look as if they’re from another play. There’s no reason or purpose for such a change of style or momentum. It is amazing Gliko is able to triumph over it. Thank the intelligence of her or Zizka’s idea of how to play the character. Gliko’s line readings and attitude toward Hamlet and her father’s restrictions supersede what looks like a lapse into Ionesco and keep Zizka from doing damage to her otherwise fine, straightforward work that lets the actors provide tension and character and doesn’t resort to overt theatrics.
Gliko’s Ophelia obviously loves Hamlet and rightfully believes her affection is returned. Polonius may want his daughter to be an automaton who obeys orders out of filial custom. Gliko’s Ophelia resigns herself to following her father’s advice more out of filial duty. She sighs when she has to comply. She looks torn between her ardor and her responsibility to respect Polonius and his read on her situation.
Jah’s Hamlet in turn conveys genuine romantic regard for Ophelia. It is rare that productions take the time, and enhance the play, by staging this love affair between the royal house and Polonius’s as so openly real.
Gliko’s Ophelia is more heartbreaking because she is not abandoning an infatuation but surrendering a true love. Hamlet’s sacrifice is no less great, which is why Jah wrings so much out of the scene is which Hamlet admonishes Ophelia, questions her unquestionable chastity, and consigns her to the nunnery.
Polonius and Claudius are tantamount to Capulet and Montague in this production. They are meddling with the authentic. Kudos to Jah, Gliko, and Zizka for presenting that. It makes so much that happens in “Hamlet” all the more rich and meaningful.
Krista Apple-Hodge abets nicely in the Hamlet-Ophelia affair. From the beginning, when Polonius first informs Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet’s dalliance with his daughter, and shows his them Hamlet’s love letters and poetry, vile phrase and all, Apple-Hodge’s queen looks thrilled that her son is involved in a liaison that she approves of so heartily. Throughout the production, Apple-Hodge’s Gertrude will display special kindness and affection to Ophelia, setting up the pathos of Gertrude’s line at Ophelia’s funeral when she says, in front of Hamlet and all, she hoped Ophelia would one day be her daughter in marriage.
Apple-Hodge gives Gertrude weight that is too often absent from productions of “Hamlet.” She is never less than an equal partner to Claudius and takes the time to show affection for her new husband without overdoing her ardor or making too much a show of it. In one scene in which Claudius and Gertrude’s kissing is interrupted by Polonius’s entrance, you see the taste Zizka and her actors use in presenting this newly formed love.
One of the more difficult scenes to realize is the one in which Hamlet, invited to Gertrude’s chamber after Claudius storms from the play, excoriates his mother for her hasty wedding with Claudius and makes her see the folly and perfidy of her choices. Jah and Apple-Hodge play this sequence with emotion that translates into the audience being as aghast as the characters at all that Hamlet accomplishes, both in chiding his mother and making her worry after he responds to the ghost she cannot see.
Apple-Hodge takes a stance of maternal maturity that conveys love and apprehensiveness about her son. She is also adept at showing shock and remorse that combine with terror when Hamlet addresses the ghost and rashly kills Polonius.
Jah is excellent as always in portraying Hamlet’s response to stabbing Polonius. Her stance and attitude blend all Hamlet is feeling — triumph in having thwarted a spy, regret his victim is not Claudius, and honest sorrow that he has slain his worthy adversary, Polonius. It is this ability to convey so much, and so much conflicting, at once that makes Jah’s performance so magnificent and savory.
Ross Beschler is an admirable comrade as Horatio, a part to which the actor brings depth and solidity. Always by Hamlet’s side, whether to inform him of the ghost, keep an eye on Claudius, hear the tale of Hamlet’s escape from England and certain death, or to comfort him as he dies following his fatal duel with Laertes, Beschler’s Horatio exudes reliability and unconditional friendship. Beschler also conveys Horatio’s wisdom and common sense.
Jered McLenigan, too absent from local stages this season, gives personality to Marcellus, a character that often fades into the background despite his delivering one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines, and is facilely slippery as Hamlet’s false friend, Guildenstern. Keith Conallen is equally adept at playing the less smooth Rosencrantz.
Lindsay Smiling acquits himself well in a number of parts, being a somber ghost, whose magnitude is enough to convince us of his sincerity, an adroit and moving player king, and a hilarious gravedigger, whose verbal volley with Hamlet is quite entertaining.
Ed Swidey brings full definition to a line of minor characters, giving the often ignored Voltemand a noteworthy part in the production and in the doings at Elsinore. Brian Ratcliffe is a fiery Laertes who shows great regard for his sister, respect for his father, palpable anger at his father and sister’s demises, and willingness to conspire with Claudius. Ratcliffe is particularly good when giving fraternal advice to Ophelia, confronting Claudius, and confessing his villainy to Hamlet.
Joe Guzmán parries well with Hamlet as Polonius but doesn’t take advantages of all the nuances inherent in the character. Steven Rishard, likewise, is a serviceable Claudius but does distinguish himself as doing more than competently fulfilling a role.
Blanka Zizka is a careful director who also knows when to indulge her sense of humor. The sight of Claudius and his courtiers at stage left during a carousal scene is quite humorous. In contrast, the swordplay between Hamlet and Laertes is intense and exciting, as staged by fight director, Ian Rose.
Hair and make-up designer David Bova did an especially excellent job is giving Krista Apple-Hodge the look of age while letting her lovely red hair flow youthfully. Costumer Vasilija Zivanic employed prudent simplicity is giving the characters clothing that was comfortable in a modern way but expressed a classic period. Her frock for Ophelia was contemporary and seemed in keeping with Zizka’s idea to set off Ophelia from the mainstream and stylize her. Zizka and Zivanic rate praise for the first court scene at which everyone is in white while Hamlet, seen reading in a chair stage right is in his inky black of mourning.
The carousel tableau would mean little if it wasn’t for Zachary Beattie-Brown’s sound design that makes Elsinore echo and gives the ghost extra gravitas.
Following “Hamlet,” Zizka directs the same company of actors in the Wilma production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
“Hamlet” runs through Saturday, May 2, at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 Tuesday, 7:30 Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. “Hamlet” is not scheduled for evening performances from April 21 to 24 (Tuesday through Friday) when Dan Hodge’s magnificent reading of Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” is scheduled for 8 p.m. or from April 28 to 30 (Tuesday through Thursday.) 10 a.m. performances geared to students will take place on all of those dates. No 7:30 p.m. show is set for Sunday, April 19. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, April 15. Tickets are $25 thanks to the Wilma Wyn Tix grant. Prices rise to $45 for shows after Sunday, April 19. Tickets can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or by visiting www.wilmatheater.org.