Hudson Theatre Works tackles ‘Hamlet,’ with uneven results

hamlet weehawken review

Bess Miller plays the title role in Hudson Theatre Works’ “Hamlet,” which runs in Weehawken through March 1.

“The essential thing is to excite the spectators. If that means playing Hamlet on a flying trapeze or in an aquarium, you do it.” — Orson Welles

The problem with “Hamlet” — especially for American actors playing to American audiences, I suspect — is that it’s, well, “Hamlet.” It’s never just the story of a Danish boy whose uncle murders his father, marries his mother, and who then goes a little crazy. You can’t just listen to the dialogue; your brain has to stay on overdrive translating the prose. And yes, it’s a Shakespearean tragedy, so every major character who hasn’t already met a grisly end has to die a violent death in the final scene. And we all know what’s coming.

That’s a lot of baggage. And Hudson Theatre Works’ production of “Hamlet” — which runs through March 1 at Weehawken’s Wilson School — seems to be a suitcase or two short.

The production, under the guidance of HTW’s resident director and artistic director Frank Licato, employs gender neutral casting, minimalist staging and modern dress. Bess Miller, so good in HTW’s “Uncle Vanya,” plays Hamlet. Women also assay the roles of Guildenstern, Barnardo, Marcellus, Reynaldo and Osric.

That’s certainly not as gimmicky as performing the play on Welles’ trapeze, or an aquarium. Also, the Irish/Ethiopian actress Ruth Negga recently won raves playing Hamlet on Broadway, so casting women in key roles hardly breaks new ground. But it does make an already muddled production even more confusing. (It didn’t help that when I saw the play on its second night, almost everyone in the cast tripped over a piece of dialogue or paused for a second, trying to recall the next line.)

Ryan Natalino plays Ophelia in Hudson Theatre Works’ “Hamlet.”

Bess Miller brings a pixie-like energy to the title role, which works well in bringing out the inherent humor in the play. But for me, she never captures Hamlet’s melancholy, nor makes his forays into madness convincing. If I didn’t know the story, I wouldn’t have realized that Hamlet loves Ophelia (who’s played a bit too broadly by actress Ryan Natalino, more “Will & Grace” than Will Shakespeare.) And the business where Guildenstern and Rosencrantz get tricked into orchestrating their own deaths doesn’t come across at all.

Charles V. Wagner IV earns kudos as King Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous uncle and stepfather; to me, he seemed to be the only actor who understands that Shakespeare’s lines need to be delivered with a rhythm as deliberate as today’s hip-hop. Mike Folie makes a fine and credible Polonius, and the booming physicality of Scott King steals the show in several scenes as both Laertes and the Player King. (Most of the cast plays multiple roles.)

The auditorium of the abandoned Wilson School (where I attended junior high, many years ago) now has a stage; it’s a welcome upgrade. The use of projections to create atmosphere (as well as the spectral ghost of Hamlet’s father) works well. For me, the acoustics remain problematic; I had trouble hearing actors who turned their backs to the audience.

“The essential thing is to excite the spectators,” said Orson Welles. For me, this production of “Hamlet” had its moments of humor and pathos and tragedy, but I left feeling more disappointed than excited.

Hudson Theatre Works’ “Hamlet” runs the Wilson School, 80 Hauxhurst Ave., Weehawken, Thursdays through Sundays until March 1. Visit hudsontheatreworks.com.

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