By James Foritano
Boston, MA – Once again, the Actors Shakespeare Project has found the perfect venue for their play: in this case, “Hamlet,” performed in the awesomely cavernous venue of Boston’s historic Church of the Covenant, just one long block down from the Public Garden on Newbury Street where it crosses Berkeley Street.
Both the gloom and the promise of this holy ark of a building, after hours, seem so right for the atmosphere of “Hamlet.” Hamlet is that “kid with everything” sung with such wrenching sweetness in the popular song.
Indeed, his mother is as beautiful as the queen she is and his father, kingly rich. Not to mention all those glittering comrades ready to entertain this prince of men’s every youthful folly or deepest passion — except, of course, a slow but steadily accelerating passion for revenge.
There’s a wide pink slip in the program which mentions, among other important safety and property concerns: “Action will occur in the aisles throughout the performance.”
That “action” is Hamlet. The center aisle of Church of the Covenant is Hamlet’s runway. Hamlet is a sulfurous engine of revenge. All the energy of youth is pointed, in the person of Hamlet, towards revenging his father’s murder by killing the present king, his father’s brother and suspected murderer.
Omar Robinson’s Hamlet is brilliant. Whether in love or in madness or deep in the scheming to expose his uncle, the present king’s guilt, Hamlet mesmerizes his audience.
The irony of Hamlet’s single-minded drive to inhabit whichever of the above characters — be they lover or madman — force for revenge or possess him at the moment is highlighted by the virtuosity of the other cast members’ portrayal of themselves as pretty much ordinary people, attempting to fill their social roles while comfortably accommodating the vagaries of being all-too-human.
The present king, Claudius, played by Ross MacDonald, is, at once, a deeply repentant Christian man who knows that he has wrongfully killed his brother in order to succeed him on the throne. But then, again, Claudius finds it just as difficult to accuse a king, i.e. himself, of acting overly ambitious by removing the opposition, i.e. his brother. After all, what kind of a king-in-waiting balks at a little, or a lot, of ambition?
Gertrude (Marianna Bassham), the former king’s wife, and now his brother and, not incidentally, his murderer’s wife, also finds accommodation with the two sides of her nature: the woman who will blink at her husband’s murder, and the queen who will float to the top whatever “troubles” roil her royal queen-dom.
This royal split personality, way before Freud, is also evidenced by Hamlet’s young friends and companions, lesser nobles who live out their uncomfortably divided loyalties in brilliantly acted confusion: Who to fortify… the throne or their buddy, Hamlet?
Over all this brilliantly plotted, brilliantly acted tragic-comedy presides the vaulting majesty of Church of the Covenant. This setting underlines the question posed by the play: Is it God the father whose stern justice we mete out, or, as fallible human beings, should we better keep the son’s promise of justice with an admixture of mercy?
To the Hamlet of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, who sees himself as the right arm of God, it’s a simple question of “To be or not to be.”
And Hamlet does have his way, but look around at the kingdom Hamlet finally inherits with his forceful right arm and everyone’s dead. Go for the mayhem, but also for the lively questions that leave you restlessly intrigued.
The lighting is laser sharp at cutting a voluminous space into foci tailor-made for the hot passions on the ground of this play; the costuming is understated but every bit rich enough to make us wonder if we, so richly out-fitted, wouldn’t also lose a few inconvenient morals on our way to this very elevated ground.
Finally, it pays richly to have read the play before you go, since Shakespeare’s vital but elaborate diction, even pronounced with sterling enunciation, will find the smallest space or the highest ceiling to hide itself from your attentive ear, alas.
(The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s presentation of “Hamlet” continues through November 6 at the Church of the Covenant, corner of Newbury and Berkeley Streets, Boston. For more information, call (617) 776-2200 or visit actorsshakespeareproject.org.)