Review: Chicago Shakespeare’s Talented Cast and Crew Bring Nuance and Definition to Hamlet

  Hamlet (Maurice Jones), the Prince of Denmark, contemplates existence in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Hamlet. Photo by Liz Lauren It’s my controversial opinion that you can’t ever truly “spoiler” something. If the work is of worth, then the journey to the ending will render it impactful even if you already know the ending. So, on the eve of Avengers: Endgame I found myself at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier fully knowing the wretched fate of everyone save Horatio. And yet, I feel my time was fully worthwhile. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s amazing cast and crew, directed by Barbara Gaines, bring Hamlet to life and then some, filling the space between words with great physicality, gravity and humor in turn so that no moment ever feels empty. Hamlet (Maurice Jones) spars with Laertes (Paul Deo Jr.) in a high-stakes fencing match as the court of Denmark looks on. Photo by Liz Lauren. One of my favorite things about Shakespeare Theater productions lies in seeing how they’ll use the space and its various capabilities. Here, the treatment was most often subtle. Hamlet stands in a pouring rain as the play opens, setting the mood and echoing the depths of Hamlet’s sorrow. Fog envelops things soon enough, and perhaps the most impressive set piece comes with Hamlet’s father’s ghost, projected on the shifting fog, who manages to be an alarming spectre even to an audience member’s eye. The work in scenic design by Scott Davis, along with Robert Wierzel’s lighting design and Mike Tutaj’s projection talents, really serve to elevate the players in the world they help create. Gertrude (Karen Aldridge, center) is caught between her son Hamlet (Maurice Jones, at right) and her new husband and king, Claudius (Tim Decker, at left). Photo by Liz Lauren. As for players, Hamlet features some very well known and accomplished folks, all of whom provide fantastic performances throughout the nearly three-hour affair, never letting the momentum fall or scenes overlinger. Actor Maurice Jones is Hamlet, and from the moment he steps on the stage, commands attention. His Hamlet is powerful if broken, and passionate. His dad is gone, his uncle now replacing his beloved father, the king, in the throne room and the marriage bed. It’s salacious and suspect, even then, and Jones’ Hamlet burns bright with grief, anger and confusion, so that when he comes to his famous “To be or not to be?” every word pierces. Claudius, played by Tim Decker, is someone you’re just on the edge of being able to like, smooth and silvertongued, almost catlike--but just as easily reviled. He’s quick to the wine-and-dine, but just as handy with deception and misdeed. Polonius (Larry Yando, at center) reveals to King Claudius (Tim Decker) and Queen Gertrude (Karen Aldridge) the contents of Hamlet's letter to Ophelia. Photo by Liz Lauren. By Hamlet’s side through thick and thin, though other friends desert him is Sean Allan Krill’s Horatio, who is likely to endear you to the character quickly and irrevocably. His Horatio is full of empathy for his friend, and wastes no time running to his side. Krill’s subtlety here breaches the dramatic and becomes the realistic portrayal of a true best friend and their role in your life in times of tragedy. Krill manages to simultaneously be fantastic as “the worrier” or the deliverer of some of Shakespeare’s better comedic barbs, and recalls such actors as Anthony Rapp in the gentle nature of the character he portrays. Larry Yando, too, steals the show at several points as Polonius, who manages to bumble, lecture and plot with great humor, creating a hilarious foil to the darkness of the rest of the play even as he later becomes part of the darkness. Ophelia (Rachel Nicks, at right) responds to being rejected by Hamlet (Maurice Jones). Photo by Liz Lauren. For an opposite reason entirely, Rachel Nicks brings the proper gravity to the stage. She is vivid and beautiful as Ophelia, but the circumstances of her personal loss see her wilt and descend into madness. Nicks’ undoing became hard to watch, and incredibly impactful. All these things, along with a myriad other great performances by an extremely skilled cast make Hamlet really burst off the page, and showcase the different facets of the play itself in high definition. By definition, that makes it a play I recommend you don't miss. Hamlet runs at Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier through June 9, and you can get tickets here.
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Marielle Bokor