The first thing the purposefully itinerant Actors’ Shakespeare Project gets right with its new production of “Hamlet” is the location. The chapel of Church of the Covenant in Back Bay would be a great setting for any “Hamlet,” a play in which the mathematics of purgatory figure crucially and the lead character wrestles so explicitly with the nature of death and the otherworldly consequences of his earthly deeds.
So it’s a little surprising that director Doug Lockwood’s production is not particularly gloomy or gothic; it’s lithe, brisk, and has more humor in it than we’re accustomed to finding in this text. Most significantly, Omar Robinson’s Hamlet is not at all the typical melancholy Dane; the actor crafts something interesting and different, even if this prince doesn’t really, in the end, sound the depths that he might have.
The result is an eminently watchable “Hamlet,” one that may not leave you pondering the imponderable, but exudes a refreshing vitality and a certain soft beauty.
The Gothic Revival setting, a church which first held services on the firm ground of a freshly filled-in portion of Back Bay in 1867, is as grand and epic as you like. The rectangular space is dominated by those neo-Gothic arches, and though the Tiffany stained glass windows are not illuminated, the large, multicolored Tiffany lantern hanging above the alter, which looks something like God’s chandelier, is ablaze with light at key moments. Rows of electric candles placed along the center aisle add to the sacred ambiance.
Lockwood employs few props and no major set pieces, placing his actors all around the altar and sometimes in the pulpit and aisles. Arshan Gailus’ moody sound design and original music, as played by Rory Boyd on the church’s historic Welte-Tripp organ, does add a gothic fanfare as introduction for several scenes. Jessica Pribble’s sumptuous period costumes look right at home here; this is a well-dressed court. Deb Sullivan’s lighting design takes good advantage of the space, here simulating moonlight and there letting the splendor of the room show itself off. Lockwood creates haunting stage pictures throughout. One in particular, a second-act moment when audience members must swivel their heads between the pulpit, the aisle and a choir loft in the rear, has stuck with me in the days since seeing the show. (“Hamlet” plays at Church of the Covenant through Nov. 6.)
Robinson’s Hamlet seems not so much wounded as embittered, nursing a sort of fractured anger that cuts him from within but manifests neither as depression nor rage. We feel the depth of his aggrievement, but it surfaces almost as sarcasm. He’s not so much discovering essential truths as complaining about them. As if banging his head against an essential cosmic joke, Hamlet’s affect here seems to communicate a sober and deeply felt cry of: “Are you serious?!”
The actor is quite funny when the prince feigns madness, bounding around the room and browbeating everyone around him. The welcome scene with Rosencrantz (Peter G. Andersen, also Horatio) and Guildenstern (Alexander Platt, also a defiant Laertes) is very well done. But from the moment Hamlet senses (in this interpretation) the eavesdropping presence of Polonius (Richard Snee) and Claudius (Ross Macdonald) midway through the first act, there’s an exaggeratedly performative sense to his assumed affect that eventually becomes grating. After that shift, it’s as if we never really see Hamlet alone with his thoughts again — not an effect you’re really looking for with the most engagingly introspective soliloquies ever written.
The director generally has his actors remain seated in the playing space when not involved in a scene, sometimes gazing over at the action and sometimes not. This may be a choice born of convenience given the nature of the space, but it cleverly adds to the sense of Elsinore as a claustrophobic, suffocating place — you never know who might be hiding behind the arras around here — particularly at times when it’s not clear if we’re meant to understand Gertrude (Marianna Bassham) and Claudius to be observing Hamlet from afar.
Lockwood gets much from a very strong, eight-person cast. Macdonald’s Claudius convinced me at times he was genuinely concerned with Hamlet’s well-being. The king’s confessional speech after the players’ visit is so well suited to the sacred surroundings, though the actor perhaps is a little too careful not to overplay his hand. Poornima Kirby’s Ophelia seems particularly young and trusting, which makes her tastefully-played mad scene all the more powerful. Bassham finds bits of humor early on, adding some nice personality to the queen before things go off the rails.
The svelte cut of the play (it runs a bit more than two and a half hours) omits the Norway subplot and condenses the encounters with the ghost; there are a few abrupt transitions, but it moves along fluidly for the most part. The production has a hiccup out of the gate with the introduction of an unnecessary framing device that is never followed up on, but otherwise the concept, as ‘twere, is a focus on clear storytelling.
If you like your “Hamlet” (and your Hamlet) nice and brooding, this may not be the one for you. But it’s a supple, quietly gorgeous production. Sometimes that's just the thing.