Review: HAMLET at The Gift Theatre

Review: HAMLET at The Gift Theatre

Pictured: Daniel Kyri | Claire Demos

By Elizabeth Ellis

A stage bare save for Horatio, smoke floating in, ominous music, and an uneasy feeling of foreboding: all of this is familiar in the telling of Shakespeare’s HAMLET. While The Gift Theatre’s production is a gritty and modern take on the tragedy of the Danish Prince, Director Monty Cole’s interpretation examines the smaller and more intimate moments where the focus is the stunning humanity shown in the characters’ relationships.

William Boles’ dirty and nasty set works surprisingly well as Elsinore Castle: it’s a filthy and neglected hallway, littered with old beer and pop cans, and looks like it had once been part of a grand hotel or a gracious apartment building. Clear vinyl panels separate the stage from the audience, giving the effect that we’re watching the action through a screen. The characters use mobile phones; the ghost of Hamlet’s father strides the parapets in a hospital gown; when the villainous King Claudius first comes onstage, strains of “Deutschland Uber Alles” can be heard in the background; siblings Laertes and Ophelia show their loving bond through playing a video game.

Of course, in what many consider to be the greatest play in the English language, the acting’s the thing. Daniel Kyri creates a fantastic young prince: in white skinny jeans, black nail polish and a kente-cloth backpack, he looks precisely like a present-day college student. The inner turmoil of the title character is familiar, but Kyri imbues his Hamlet both with strength and a need to connect, which makes his pain feel all the more close and personally affecting.

Shanesia Davis’ lovely Queen Gertrude is at first full of grace and elegance, but as the depth of her treachery slowly becomes apparent, the perfect facade cracks to reveal a mother’s incalculable agony and suffering. Robert Cornelius does an excellent double turn as both the ghost of Hamlet’s father and Polonius, making you mourn for the ghost and wish Polonius would take a hike. John Kelly Connolly’s Claudius is detestable from the moment he comes onstage, a considerable achievement. The deepest relationship occurs between Gregory Fenner’s Laertes and Netta Walker’s Ophelia. Their bond is deep and beautiful and provides the most heartbreaking moment in the show: after Polonius’ death, they share earbuds to listen to Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” and, grief-stricken, sing the lyrics:

If I could get another chance

Another walk

Another dance with him

I’d play a song that would never ever end

How I’d love love love

To dance with my father again

Fenner’s stellar and impassioned interpretation of Laertes is the best I’ve ever seen. His fierce love for his family and rage at its shattering demise makes his later actions seem completely reasonable. Walker’s Ophelia gives the most delicate and nuanced portrayal of a descent from great loss into madness. Casey Morris’ Horatio displays absolute love and devotion to his dear friend Hamlet, while Hannah Toriumi and Martel Manning are perfectly balanced against each other as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Manning also shows off his considerable comic gifts as the gravedigger.

Cole has expertly scaled down HAMLET to fit the long and shallow Gift space. While this can be a challenge even with the simplest of plays, to accomplish this with what is often an enormous dramatic undertaking is a remarkable achievement. His actors, however, do not scale back their performances, and in such an intimate space, the audience feels every shift in emotion and in dramatic action. The lighting design from Claire Chrzan and Michelle E. Benda is indeed beautiful and effective, and Jeffrey Levin’s music from numerous disciplines provides a fresh dimension to a familiar story.

This modern interpretation of HAMLET takes a minor period of adjustment— the panels we view through occasionally muffle the actors’ voices. Several vertical dividers provide coverage for microphones, but occasionally obscure some of the actors’ faces — but it’s an intriguing production that, due to the wonderful work from Kyri and Fenner in particular, will be one to be examined for years to come.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.