If you need a pick-me-up, perhaps a Shakespearean tragedy is not the first place to turn. But for me and Inscape fiction editor, Tyler Corbridge, the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of Hamlet was an invigorating reprieve from the general work of university life—a healthy dose of death, drinking, and delight.
For those who have never been, down in Cedar City, Utah, each summer, the Tony Award–winning theatre company from the Utah Shakespeare Festival graces the stages of Southern Utah University for four full months of theatrical entertainment. And as one of its last productions this year, actor and teacher Danforth Comins gave a stunning performance in the role of Hamlet that bit with sanguine intensity.
As he entered a stage filled with well-groomed men in spiffy Italian-style suits and classy women donned with faux fur wraps, Comins stuck out like a sore thumb. He, wearing his own sloppy version of formal attire complete with undone shirt and greasily slicked-back pony tail, was initially as unlikable as any villain. He whined and groaned throughout the first half of the first act, and on through the well-known ghost scene. But soon after hearing of his father’s murder, he was shocked back into a post-pubescent livelihood that rattled the theatre with wit and energy. Not only did his hair get a much-needed cut, but his acting got a renovation as well.
By the second half of the act, the combination of Comins’s performance and Max Robinson’s performance as Polonius stole the show. Their witty banter was enhanced throughout the play by the ability to deliver lines in a Benedict vs. Beatrice sort of way—quick-paced and never missing a beat. The unexpected fun of Hamlet was more accessible than ever in a series of scenes that gave surprising edge to the lines of both characters. The graveyard and later duel scenes were also unforgettable with a smattering of well-placed jokes and intense action.
But what was most surprising, perhaps, was the complete absence of a ghost in the anticipated ghost scene. Rather than supplying the audience with a spooky apparition of the King of Denmark, director Marco Baricelli chose to step out of theatrical convention and keep the apparition just that—a figment of light with no form or sense of being. His unique choice allowed the audience to focus on the emotionality of Hamlet rather than the absurdity of his chained, sheet-covered, or smoke-exuding ghost of a father. While listening to the King’s monologues over a booming speaker rather than watching them performed live was at least slightly distracting, it also pulled the viewers into Hamlet’s agony–the agony of a son who just learned that his mother had remarried his uncle, the very man responsible for the death of his beloved father.
The use of the light also opens room to interpret Hamlet’s psychological state. When the audience is faced with a physical ghost, there is little opportunity to assume that Hamlet has indeed lost his mind and created a self-divined scapegoat for his revenge. But the light alone begs the audience to ask: is his father really there or not? Despite the fact that Horatio and his accompanying watch guards claim to see the phantom, his mother Gertrude later denies the vision when Hamlet is visited again in her bedroom. So which story is it? Baricelli chooses to let the audience decide on their own rather than supply the answer for them.
Overall, the performance was one to remember. And though a tragedy, it was certainly the blood-pumping recharge that students might need in the late-semester slump.*
*Reviewer’s Note: For those who missed the productions from this summer’s festival, be sure to check out the following line-up for next year’s season. On the roster are such performances as Shakespeare’s King John, The Tempest, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Richard II. Additionally you can find wonderful performances of the musicals Anything Goes and The Marvelous Wonderettes and the Tony Award–winning stage adaptation of Peter and the Starcatcher.