It is surprising how much the energy of a theatrical production influences the experience the audience has. In the new K-State Theater “Hamlet,” Kyle Meyers is unflagging in the title role and Charlotte MacFarland’s direction drives even nameless characters to climb the scenery behind the climax. And by keeping after things, the Nichols Theater production, which runs through next weekend, manages to do most of this most celebrated of all plays in three and a half hours.
They are pretty entertaining hours. This is a slightly different Hamlet than one expects. That is probably true of almost every good production of the play, admittedly. But in this modern dress version we are not given a wan and indecisive Hamlet. Meyers’s Hamlet really seems to be crazy, not just to be feigning craziness. And he postpones killing his uncle the king more as part of a Telltale Heart sort of improvised plan than because he isn’t sure what he should do.
The cast of seventeen, many of them doubling parts, gave us some fascinating characterizations. Little-mouthed Dillon Artzer makes a solid big Claudius and a fine contrast to Paul Giamatti-mouthed Meyers. Sean Matthews has a wonderful voice for playing the leader of the actors. Griffin Letch isn’t on stage long while playing the gravedigger, but he got off his puns well and got laughs. And Prof. Michael Donnelly was the perfect choice to play the verbose Polonius, advising his son to neither a borrow nor a lender be.
The acting is supported by Kathy Voecks’s visual and practical David Hockney set, subtle costumes by Dana Pinkston, and impressive, subtle, surprisingly numerous lighting schemes by John Uthoff. Early in the play the characters wear only black. But court dress seems to favor browns, the players when performing wear white printed with large skeletons, and the queen likes reds.
The lighting does many things well. The water shimmering on the curtains behind the on-stage pool at the end of the first set is memorable. For a Claudius soliloquy, zones were lit individually with very smooth transitions following the king-uncle as he walked the stage. The ghost had his own lighting, and a pattern broadcast onto the thrust surface turned its marble look into something spookier.
The cut outs along the side of the stairway provided effective shadow patterns late, and individual characters were sometimes allowed to throw shadows on the back wall, under the mirror. As the play went on, the lighting turned the set from gray to sea green.
We’ve seen two great Shakespeare tragedies on K-State stages this spring—the other being Aquila Theater’s touring “Macbeth” over in McCain Auditorium—and they were the two best-lit Shakespeare plays I think I’ve ever seen.
The story may not need clear telling. Audiences have seen “The Lion King” enough times to have the gist of the tale before they enter the theater. But the K-State version of the play was quite clear about what was happening and why. It worked best, of course, when the players spoke the lines trippingly and didn’t saw the air thus. The reason we love this play, the reason it has the sort of recognition it does, is that its language is lovely, effective, chilling, and dramatic. The cast here did a pretty good job enunciating the words.
So it was a good, big “Hamlet” that the lucky audience saw. We left the comfy theater with a ready supply of new ideas about the play, about its lighting, about the mental state of the title character, and about how an injection of voltage works on a fairly full version of the magical text. Generally speaking, the effects were pretty good.