I am not one who swoons at Shakespeare’s every word. I am not one to refute his genius either. Hamlet. It’s a play where every third line is recognizable and there must be a reason for that, no? Many favor Hamlet as Shakespeare’s finest accomplishment and a perfect play. It’s a bit dark for me personally, a bit long as well, and there’s no escaping it is a play, but I keep going back to see it, so there’s that.
City Lights Theatre Company has a long history of succeeding at dramatic plays and particularly contemporary scripts. Hamlet to me is and always will be dated, which isn’t to say an audience today can’t relate, just that the language is always going to read not-this century to me. So, admittedly I thought maybe this wasn’t going to be City Light’s best work, that maybe they were a bit out of their element.
While I didn’t feel the contemporary setting helped this play, I didn’t think it hurt it either. The set was plain, costuming basic, and my least favorite theatrical device of double casting proved difficult to embrace in this particular case as well, but City Lights I’d say succeeded in shining a more current light on this “timeless” story. I got confused at guns AND swords, but with the stage combat being solid (not an easy feat) I was able to overlook that choice. I wasn’t clear on the use of accents either, but the language sounds better with it than not, so again I was able to gloss over that without too much obsession.
While the tech didn’t standout, there’s some genius casting at play here. In particular I was super impressed with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Horatio and Laertes. All five delivered famous lines with fresh and earnest feeling. I’d seen nearly all of those actors before in vastly different roles and they were equally committed and believable. Very versatile, very engaging, definitely the highlight for me along with some moments of bold and counterintuitive staging that came off as intelligent and calculated accents to the prose.
City Lights does right to break up the thick play with two ten minute intermissions and I urge you to take advantage of that second break to get some fresh air, or you may find yourself struggling to concentrate with the lack of cross circulation of the theatre and the dense and brooding finale.
In the end this is as you would expect…Hamlet, and if you’ve never seen or read Hamlet, you’re likely to find this a pleasing introduction to the “rotten state of Denmark” as it is perhaps, slightly more accessible than other productions. And, for those of us who have seen many manifestations of this classic already, you’ll likely rank it squarely amongst the middle of the pack. Nothing riveting, nothing revolutionary, but a good representation of the Bard’s work.
Overall a night of drama, words, wit and the plotting of revenge worthy of a look if you’re in the mood to digest nearly three hours of the psychological thriller ripe with renaissance rhetoric. 3 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara. Hamlet plays at City Lights in San Jose through April 15th.
*** Pair this play with a light meal so the play is not competing with a food coma. Great salads and light appetizers can be had just 3 blocks away at the Loft Bar Bistro on South 2nd and San Fernando.