Max Jablow as Hamlet. photo: CTC
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Charlie Sexton
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Hamlet is not a hero. The character has never fit the archetype; he’s too complex, too conflicted and his desire to avenge the death of his father destroys everything in his world. Hardly the stuff of legend.
Rarely has the Melancholy Dane been as much of an anti-hero as he is in Charlie Sexton’s new production in the 2021 Young American Shakespeare Festival at Commonwealth Theatre Center. Set in the early 1970s, the time of Watergate and the death of American idealism, it boldly shows Hamlet as a seedy-looking character who resembles a pimp.
If the purpose of changing the time and place for Shakespeare is to allow you to look at a play with fresh eyes, the approach was successful. Gender swapping and gender-fluid casting help that cause, as Stephanie Cox’s Polonius becomes Ophelia’s mother and Laertes is played by Genny Friesen as a man. CTC has a long history of such choices, but it still seems worth noting.
As Hamlet, Max Jablow navigates some of the most famous soliloquies with intelligence and discovery. He has the heart of a hustler who uses his confidence skills to enact a rough, imperfect justice. With his long, slicked-back hair and cheesy print polyester shirt Jablow seems less royal and as susceptible to corruption as anyone onstage. When he tells Ophelia to, “…get thee to a nunnery!” the moment is typically understood to be Hamlet playing the artifice of madness that is crucial to his plan, but for the first time, I wondered if he also was urging her to distance herself from the deeply corrupt Danish court to find sanctuary in a life of religious devotion.
Not unexpectedly for this play, Jablow dominates the action, and his performance builds up steam until he finds the fullest expression of his rage on his mother’s bed just before he unwittingly kills Polonius. Later, Hamlet’s ruthlessness is captured in how he betrays the esteem in which he held Ophelia’s mother by using her death to forward his cause.
At the end the stage is littered with dead bodies, so what has Hamlet accomplished except the dissolution of the monarchy? Although there is no doubt of Claudius’ guilt, Hamlet’s actions can also feel like hubris, especially because Shakespeare allows Claudius the opportunity for reflection on his own moral failings. If Hamlet is no easy hero, neither is Claudius a complete villain.
Jackson Guarino-Sanders does a good job illustrating that, and his Claudius often seems unexpectedly noble and fair. Laura Gibson is a very good Ophelia, playing her emotional instability with discipline and insight. Sara Seim was a graceful Gertrude, and had the coolest wardrobe, flowing and diaphanous fabrics that emphasized her willowy movement (costumes by Lindsay Chamberlin and Hannah Greene). The ensemble was in general very capable and was sensitive enough to the unexpected changes in the environment to raise and lower their delivery as needed.
For this production, the 3rd of the Festival took place on an outdoor stage constructed for the purpose of allowing CTC to host their first live audience in over a year. The immediate proximity to residences meant that neighbors took advantage of the rare clear skies (the Festival had already been forced to cancel the first two performances due to rain) to mow the lawn and trim the verge, yet the actors even wired for sound, adjusted their performance so that not a word was missed. All of the efforts are commendable but there is no question that these performances would benefit from the intimacy of CTC’s regular stage. But for now, we have to take live theatre in whatever way it comes.
Once again, CTC has made me see a very familiar play in a different light. The interior stage would likely have included some more intentional sets and lighting than could be managed in this temporary outdoor circumstance, which would have made Sexton’s concept more palpable, but it works well enough to have deepened my understanding of one of Shakespeare’s most psychological complex stories.
Featuring Nate Brantley, Miller Cox, Stephanie Cox, Ian Diakov, Genny Friesen, Laura Gibson, Jackson Guarino-Sanders, Trace Henderson, Sophia Hyde, Max Jablow, Natalie Koch, Laine Lloyd, Charlotte Meeley, Sara Seim, & Emerson Tuttle
May 8, & 16 @ 2:00 pm
May 9, 12, & 15 @ 7:00 pm
Tickets: $15 – Click Here
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music, and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.