Cedar City • Few plays freeze an audience in expectation with the power of "Hamlet." No other dramatic work grips you in the icy reputation of its scholarly credentials, not to mention its calling-card of quotes grown almost meaningless through repetition.
It's a work trapped between at least three different forces: the cliche of literature classes, the outsize yearnings of theater directors and actors hell-bent on transcending that very cliche, and theatergoers who'd rather dig their way through the earth using nothing but their own mouths than sit through yet another production.
Another chance to see "Hamlet," though, is always another chance to circle this towering statue once more, looking again for details and angles that tense and bristle in the anatomy.
The brooding intellectual formerly known as Prince Hamlet has been espoused as everything from an Oedipal basket-case to a fiery rebel, from a gentle soul pushed to extremes to a post-modernist trickster happy to blur the lines between acting and real-life. Educated in Wittenberg, home to rebel-rouser Martin Luther, the character is western culture's first embodiment of modernist unease. And that was centuries before existential angst was cool.
What's new here? This production "will ask questions about this play you were never aware of," said Michael Bahr, Utah Shakespeare Festival's education director, speaking outside the Randall L. Jones Theatre on opening night.
Director Marco Barricelli serves up a version that's piping hot almost volatilein every scene. Barricelli seems interested in the play's thriller elements. The sub-plot of Fortinbras' invasion is dispensed, and even pesky words that might stump and slow the audience are excised. The ghost of King Hamlet wears his "visor" up, not his "beaver," Horatio tell us.
Eschewing the standard tights and cod pieces of Elizabethan costumes, this production instead gives us the refreshing sight of Edwardian-era actors who've visited high-priced Italian tailors. There's a steam-punk edge to the gray set, even a touch of Tim Burton around the edge.
From the moment Danforth Comins appears, untucked shirt and with ponytail, the play's tone is set but never locked in place. From "too, too solid flesh" to "the rest is silence," Comins may lean into lines too often, but has a bracing way with tempo and delivery.
Purists may balk at the way he turns "fie!" into an f-bomb, or Barricelli's decision to have Hamlet turn his back on the audience for an extended time, but no one can accuse this production of being boring.
This "Hamlet" also draws a line early on with its decision to never show us the ghost of dead King Hamlet. Instead, we see only Hamlet listening to the disembodied call of his father's command to "remember me." It's a vexing decision, because there's no doubt that Marcellus, Bernardo and Horatio have also seen the ghost. But it emphasizes the notion that Hamlet, aside from liking the sound of his own voice, also lives a bit too much inside his own head. If he wasn't unsteady to begin with, the sound of his father's voice knocked him off for good.
It's almost a form of abuse to point out, for the millionth time, that Hamlet is a character nailed to the mast of indecision. In reality, he's making decisions right, left and center, testing out his mother and uncle, confounding everyone in a deliberate manner, and consigning childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death. The decision not to kill his praying uncle Claudius is still a decision. So is his reckless murder of Polonius, hurtling everyone afterward toward death and disorder.
Barricelli and cast speed the play up for all it's worth. In fact, it's only when it slows down that elements turn murky. We don't quite need a Gertrude who drinks from a whiskey flask between languishing lines announcing Ophelia's drowning, but that's a mere quibble after the incredible, rapid-fire sequence of the duel scene. It's a marvel to behold.
If it's a philosopher's "Hamlet" you crave, look elsewhere. Some contend the play's tragedy is that Hamlet dies just before gaining the wisdom necessary to become king of Denmark.
Barricelli and Comins give us a Hamlet too wise to ever want to become king of any nation. The pile of bodies on stage regardless, that may not be tragic. But with its boundless energy and invention, this "Hamlet" shakes us hard enough out of complacency so we can decide for ourselves, freed from years of professorial layers of sediment, what makes this great work so alluring.
Utah Shakespeare Festival's 'Hamlet'
Shakespeare's most famous dramatic calling card gets a new set of clothes, a faster pace and a visceral, impatient Danish prince for the feel of a thriller. The grace notes sometimes get lost, but the energy of risk-taking on display is bracing.
When » Through Oct. 27; Tuesday-Saturday with 7:30 p.m. performances and select 2 p.m. matinees.
Where » The Randall L. Jones Theatre on the campus of Southern Utah State University, 315 W. Center St., Cedar City
Info » Visit www.bard.org or call 800-PLAYTIX or 435-586-7878.
Running time » Three hours including 10-minute intermission.