Midway through the second half of Hamlet, currently playing through September 22 at the Folger Theatre, actress Miranda Foster tackles one of the play’s most grueling scenes, in which her son, Hamlet (Michael Benz), wrestles her into a chair and accuses her of being a wicked, incestuous adulteress. “Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain,” Foster wails. Minutes later, she’s weeping again over the death of Ophelia (Carlyss Peer), before unexpectedly donning a cap, a Cockney affect, and a grimace to play the cheerfully stupid apprentice to a gravedigger, even as the remnants of her tears are still visible.
This kind of quick turnaround defines director Dominic Dromgoole’s interpretation of the play, which adopts few frills and furbelows but relies instead on the strength of its actors to present a pared-down, surprisingly funny production of what may be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. The production, which comes from Shakespeare’s Globe in London, uses a cast of eight to play multiple characters each—the only exception being Benz as Hamlet, who has to content himself with adopting the various schizophrenic guises of the sullen Danish prince.
Dromgoole’s streamlining also trims the play from a hefty four-plus hours to a more manageable two and a half, and achieves it so effortlessly that the cuts are almost unnoticeable. The set, too, is surprisingly meager amid the Folger’s elegant surroundings, making the Globe players feel authentically like a ragtag troupe of touring actors and the production an authentically Shakespearian experience. The performers greet audience members as they take their seats, and start and close the show with songs. And to approximate the Globe’s outdoor amphitheater, the lights stay on throughout.
It’s a testament to the director’s skills that the play’s first scene, in which Horatio (Tom Lawrence) encounters the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Dickon Tyrell, who also plays Claudius), is so atmospheric, even in the brightly illuminated theater. This is no wraithlike specter, but it’s spooky nonetheless, and the tension is ramped up by the sound effects (provided by actors visible onstage). The scene is also suprisingly funny, particularly when a watchmen laments that the silent, implacable ghost has been “offended” by Horatio’s questions (presumably ghosts in Shakespeare’s time had a more keen sensitivity to insults than the more hard-hearted poltergeists of our times).
Benz, an Anglo-American Georgetown grad who studied at Britain’s most prestigious acting school, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, has a tougher job than most in navigating the play’s emotional ups and downs, and he really shines in the scenes where he gets to embrace comedy, portraying Hamlet’s mad interludes by rolling his eyes, licking his lips, and gazing blankly at the audience. The soliloquies are more challenging, but Benz weathers them well by resisting the urge to overact. With his white-blond hair, black clothes, and sulky comportment, he’s the emo Hamlet Ethan Hawke never quite managed to deliver.
The rest of the cast is equally strong, particularly Christopher Saul as a pitch-perfect Polonius and Dickon Tyrell in dual roles as the stately, silky smooth Claudius and his dead brother. Carlyss Peer is graceful and almost rowdy as Ophelia—it’s a tricky and inconsistent role, but Peer makes the character seem less two-dimensional than she could be.
Supporting players Peter Bray and Matthew Romain flit with ease between roles, and Bray is as dignified and solemn as Fortinbras as he is endearingly nerdy as Rosencrantz (who, with Romain’s Guildenstern and Benz’s Hamlet, makes up a goofy trio complete with Three Amigos signature moves). Tom Lawrence alternates between playing the straight man as Horatio and playing musical interludes on a fiddle.
With few props to work with save some swords, drapes, and a plastic chair, and even less in the way of a set (the wooden beams and scruffy looking backdrops are by Jonathan Fensom, who also designed the bland, ’40s-era costumes), the actors have to rely on one another to evoke mood, scene changes, and atmosphere. Thankfully, this troupe of traveling players makes it look easy.
Hamlet, presented by Shakespeare’s Globe, is at the Folger Theatre through September 22. Tickets ($60 to $85) are available by phone at 202-544-7077. For more information, visit the Folger’s website.