Hamlet — Images courtesy Theatre Unbound


Theatre Unbound
Directed by Leah Adcock-Starr

Minneapolis’s Theatre Unbound last tackled Shakespeare in 2012 with a gripping production of Julius Caesar that largely played it straight. This year, they have upped their ambition by taking on Hamlet, one of the Bard’s greatest tragedies, in a more audacious staging. The result is a freewheeling, energetic performance that defies expectations and isn’t afraid to try out new approaches to the characters and their story.

In an interview on the Theatre Unbound blog, Nicole Joy Frethem, who plays Laertes, describes this production of Hamlet as “unfinished.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Rather than attempting — with eight actors, a limited budget, and likely not much rehearsal time — to create a Hamlet for the ages, director Leah Adcock-Starr and her collaborators have put on what often seems like a play about acting out Hamlet. The most obvious example of this is the reading aloud of many of the stage directions by Laura Mahler, who also plays Horatio. But this tendency also comes through in the way the actors approach their characters.

Thus, in portraying Hamlet, Kathryn Fumie seems to spend most of her energy exploring the character’s brash, emotionally volatile side. If this means that his metaphysical brooding gets less attention than usual, so be it. On the other hand, as Claudius, Muriel J. Bonertz seems more interested in the king’s Macbeth-like, private contemplation of his own wickedness than in his public charisma. We can see the same pattern in how most of the major roles are handled; it’s as if we are watching the actors intensely work out certain aspects of their characters, while other aspects merely get an often-rapid walk-through.

Of course, performances like these will not always faithfully recreate the characters we know and love. I missed Hamlet’s brooding, as well as Horatio’s cool rationality, which is pushed to the side in Mahler’s cocky portrayal. But there are also some benefits to removing the layers of varnish that have accumulated on these characters over time. A case in point is Laertes, who often comes across as a mere foil but is refreshingly human in Frethem’s hands. Meanwhile, Gretchen Emo introduces us to a Gertrude whose frailty seems to be more of an inevitable reaction to circumstances than the result of a weak will or sexual lust.

Jenny Moeller and Lisa Conley’s set and costume designs — the play takes place in a white box, with all of the characters save one clad in shades of white, off-white, and gray — add to the sense of an altered, incomplete reality. The music, on the other hand — played by ensemble member Zoa Green on guitar — is more classically theatrical, subtly underlining the mood and energy of each scene. All told, this is a production of Hamlet with the joints showing — sometimes frustrating, sometimes illuminating, but always daring. Theatre Unbound’s Hamlet plays at the JSB Tek Box at the Cowles Center through May 31.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

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