What makes it special?: The first show Darko Tresnjak has directed since receiving the Tony Award in June.
First impressions: Though set in Elizabethan England, Tresnjak's production — his fourth Bard work at Hartford Stage -— has a sleek, paranoid, pulse-pounding feel that makes it the right fit for modern times, too. Zach Appelman makes for a clear, moving and thrilling Hamlet — a career-propelling performance that at times takes your breath away.
And other times?: You're just as riveted. This Hamlet is a deeply committed searcher grappling convincingly with duty and conscience with the urgent fervor of youth. Appelman, a Yale School of Drama grad, is as captivating as he is conflicted as he goes from mourning son, to a questioning prince, to a rebel with a cause, to a young man of destiny bent, if not twisted, on vengeance of a higher order.
What's it about?: Worlds colliding. A young man making choices. Not to mention revenge, religion, secrecy: all these themes are intertwined in the performances, staging and design. But the production's directorial conceit never imbalances the truth of the text that is presented in direct, understandable and human terms.
It's that emotional authenticity that stands out here exemplified by Hamlet's confrontation with his mother, his relationship with the traveling players, his torturous scene with Ophelia, and his self-examining solitude.
The play may be the thing but so are the players here. The always-excellent Kate Forbes makes Gertrude's journey almost as compelling as her son's'. Andrew Long is commanding, vital and dazzlingly manipulative as the murderous King Claudius (he even spins God). Floyd King is outstanding as the Player King, with theatrics that are large but also human. (He's terrific too as the playful, philosophical gravedigger, Shakespeare's earthbound existentialist.
Edward James Hyland as Polonius is a constant and complex delight, half old sage, half old fool; Brittany Vicars as Ophelia is heartbreaking, first in her confusion, then later in her madness; Anthony Roach makes for a stalwart Laertes, ditto James Seol as Hamlet's blank slate of a wing man, Horatio. Curtis Billings and Cliff Miller are thoroughly engaging — and far from marginalized — as the duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
There are some small elements of the staging that took me out of the play: an opening scene that's pedestrian and arch; when the fourth wall is physically broken; a jokey prop that's just too much, Polonius's death was also strangely set in an underground chamber — but at least it solved the perennial problem of what to do with a focus-stealing corpse on stage during a long, important scene. (The subterranean chamber also nicely makes a deathly connection with the ghost of Hamlet's father and with the gravedigger.)
Details, details: The design elements throughout the show are stunning, and deceptively simple — at first. Tresnjak's talents extends to his stylishly conceptual-and-efficient set design with much of the action placed on a giant lit crux center-stage, evoking the production's religious conflicts where X marks the spot — but also allowing for the play's many scenes to move with a quickening pace.
Fabio Toblini clearly sets the outfits in Elizabethan times but with a modern twist of materials and textures. Satin and lace never looked so gorgeous — and ominous. Matthew Richards lights this world with illuminating brightness and inky, infinite blackness, all the easier for surreptitious goings-on to take place. Jane Shaw's sound design looms large and foreboding, too.
And keep your eye on….: The final image of the production. No spoiler here but it's a coup de theatre that will be remembered for a long time.
Who will like it?: Shakespearean fans who like the emphasis placed on the language — while remaining dynamic, too.
Who won't?: Guilt-ridden despots.
For the kids?: Smart teens who brush up on their Shakespeare first will appreciate the portrayal of angst-filled youth. They'll also like the thrilling swordplay at the end of the show, staged by J. Allen Suddeth.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: To go or not to go: Go.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: I was going to write this is my favorite production of "Hamlet", and while it is accurate, truth be told, I haven't seen all that many professional productions of the work on stage. (Now "Midsummer Night's Dream" on the other hand…) Still, this experience of, arguably, the Bard's greatest play left me on a Shakespearean high.
The basics: "Hamlet" plays at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., through Nov. 16. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. Information at 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.