The Church is the Thing: HAMLET

Photo by Nile Scott Shots; Marianna Bassham and Ross MacDonald.

Photo by Nile Scott Shots; Marianna Bassham and Ross MacDonald.

Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Doug Lockwood

October 5 – November 6, 2016
Church of the Covenant
Boston, MA
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Boston, MA) Hamlet is often seen as a humanist play, one where the lead character, instead of taking much of any action, spends much of his time pondering the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.However, the play is also ripe with religious questions on sin, confession, and redemption. The Actors’ Shakespeare Project brought out these religious themes by staging a production of the play at the Church of the Covenant, a Gothic-style church with high ceilings and stern fixtures of what appear to be either angels or demons looking down on parishioners. The actors on stage at the altar appear engulfed by the shadowy immenseness of the improvised theater throughout the play. While this helps bring out the perceived helplessness of these immensely powerful members of the Danish royal family, it also at times made for a difficult time for theater goers.

Despite impeccable diction from the cast, the sound quality of the echoey, cavernous church was iffy, at best, which meant that it was best to have been familiar with the script beforehand. Likewise, while the actors brought stellar presence and energy to their parts, one had to strain one’s neck to see much of the climactic action from the flat-level pews.

In many ways, both of these drawbacks were also a plus. The cavernous setting felt like the gloom of death threatening to engulf each character, so that even moments of joy died away in uncomfortable stillness. And the limited viewing for the action made one feel as if part of a crowd who will never get the big picture, just as Hamlet dies never knowing if his actions will have any meaning.

It helps that the principal players of the cast bring well-defined characters who rise above the familiar tropes that these characters have become in lesser productions. Of special distinction are Marianna Bassham as Gertrude and Ross MacDonald as Claudius, Hamlet’s mother and murderous stepfather. The power couple bring a touch of modernity to the royal court, along with modern vices. Gertrude’s poor decisions stem from her somewhat manic attempts to maintain her sexuality, while Claudius is a congenial wheeler-and-dealer who feels burdened by the murderous choices he’s made. Together, when the two realize in the end they cannot escape their sins, their expressions speak volumes on the horror one feels when one’s mortality and morality collide.

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