Stages

Review: The Soaring Language of Hamlet Thrills in Invictus Theatre’s Intimate Setting

Chsrles Askenaizer as Hamlet and Ebby Offord as Ophelia. Photo by Brian McConkey.

Hamlet is all about the language. It’s thrilling to hear Shakespeare’s tragic tale spoken by a talented and well-directed team of actors. Invictus Theatre’s modern-dress production of the Bard’s 1601 script succeeds in making the language clear and forceful, with careful direction by Charles Askenaizer, who also stars as Hamlet. His performance is superb—emotional and nuanced in all the right places, sometimes fierce, sometimes manic or grief-stricken.

The entire cast gives new life to this well-worn story of the prince, gone mad or feigning madness, over the murder of his father by his own brother and his mother’s marriage to the murderer. (“The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”)

The Invictus Theatre production uses nearly the complete text of Hamlet, slightly modernizing some of the language and tightening the “script” of the play within a play. It eliminates detail about the pending war with Norway’s Fortinbras. We are aware of the war in the background but Fortinbras does not appear, even in the final scene, where corpses litter the stage like the end of a Sopranos episode.

Joseph Beal and Diane Sintich are believably affectionate as the newly married Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle) and Gertrude (my mother/aunt, Hamlet calls her). Beal makes Claudius almost human in the scene where he acknowledges his guilt and prays to the angels, as Hamlet looms with a blade. Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain, is warmly played by Darren Jones as dad to Laertes (Michael Lewis) and the doomed Ophelia (Ebby Offord). (Well, all are doomed, as it turns out.)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s college mates, are played with more than the usual silliness by Jack Morsovillo and Andrea Uppling. (I liked the casting of Uppling as Guildenstern, which she imbues with a flirtatious chumminess.) Barry Irving is indispensable as Hamlet’s good and loyal friend, Horatio. Robert Koon, veteran Chicago actor and playwright, takes on many roles in this small cast; he is particularly good as the Player King and leader of the traveling troupe of players.

Invictus recently moved into its new storefront space on West Thorndale in Edgewater. The theater is intimate (40 seats), which enhances the intensity of some of the scenes in Hamlet. Hamlet’s physical confrontation with his mother, Gertrude, late in the play is more oedipal than it might be if you were viewing it performed upon a raised stage half a football field away. A simulated sex scene may be more erotic in this intimate space.

The fight begins. Laertes (Michael Lewis) vs. Hamlet (Charles Askenaizer), as Claudius (Joseph Beal) and Gertrude (Diane Sintich) watch. Photo by Brian McConkey.

Askenaizer, who is also Invictus’ artistic director, comments that while we often think of Shakespeare’s plays as being grand spectacles, “Hamlet is at its heart, an intimate piece. At major moments of the play, it’s just us and Hamlet, as he is deep in his thoughts….” And those thoughts involve some of the most famous speeches in theater history. Hamlet is a role that any actor longs to make his own, with such monologues as “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” “What a piece of work is man,”, and of course, “To be or not to be ….”

Scenic design and props are by Kevin Rolfs with lighting and sound design by Chad Lussier. Isaac Pineda is responsible for costume design. Sarafina Vecchio is text coach, an important role in such a production.

Apropos to the viewing of this excellent Hamlet are two recent novels by noted writers. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is the story of William Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11, most likely from the bubonic plague. The story, told from the viewpoint of Agnes (Ann-yis), Shakespeare’s wife and Hamnet’s mother, ends with Agnes finally viewing her husband’s new play, written, she believes, to honor their son. Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, is told from a more peculiar viewpoint: that of the fetus in Gertrude’s (Trudy’s) womb as she and her husband’s brother Claude plot a murder. Nutshell is short and mischievously clever.

Hamlet by Invictus Theatre Company continues through November 21 at the space formerly known (and still signed as) the Frontier, 1106 W. Thorndale, just west of the Thorndale Red Line Station. Running time is about 3.5 hours with one intermission. Tickets are $30 ($25 for students) plus a $1 service fee for online and credit card purchases. Performances are Thursday-Monday.

Invictus’ Covid protocols require all audience members to show proof of vaccination before entry. Masks must be worn throughout your time in the theater.

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