The first few minutes of Theatre Coup d'Etat's production of Hamlet promise much. In an almost completely dark American Swedish Institute's Turnblad Mansion ballroom, the first scene — in which Horatio and two soldiers first meet the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father — is illuminated almost entirely by flashlight.
The energy from the spooked actors easily transmits to the audience in the intimate and very dark space, making the specter's arrival a jolt. That's aided by the costume, which is contemporary, cold-weather military gear topped off with a hooded jacket and a gas mask. (A century after World War I, and gas masks are still creepy.)
Those few minutes promise a lot from this young and hungry theater's take on Shakespeare's tragedy. Over the course of the next three-plus hours, there are moments that make good on that promise. There are also stretches when focus is lacking and energy lags. Overall, it makes for a long evening full of potential if not always the right execution.
HamletTheatre Coup d'Etat, 2600 Park Ave. S., MinneapolisThrough June 9www.theatrecoupdetat.com
Over the past couple of years, Theatre Coup d'Etat has charted an ambitious course, tackling two other Shakespeare plays — Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet — along with A Streetcar Named Desire and the first half of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. The creative core, Peter Beard (Hamlet) and James Napoleon Stone (Laertes), have proved to be thoughtful creators interested in truly exploring the text at hand.
Hamlet offers considerable challenges, from the length of the full text, to determining whether the main character is actually mad or just playing at it, to working out how to portray the rotten kingdom at the center of the story.
For the last, this production doesn't have to do much. The show is played almost entirely without sets, apart from the occasional chair. Instead, the audience is surrounded by the silent halls of the after-hours mansion, loaded with opulence and narrow hidden hallways — perfect for spying on the mad prince.
Shakespeare provides us with three intriguing characters — maybe-mad Hamlet, usurping Claudius, and the bent-on-revenge Laertes. In an effort to fill out the last two, this production loses sight of Hamlet. The confusion as to whom we should be following as the key character makes the show obscure when it should be dark.
One reason I think it feels like we're watching different plays at different moments is that the company chose to go for a group-directed approach. While this can work for many types of theater, this production cries out for a single firm hand to bring all of the different ideas back into line for the ultimate goal: telling the story at hand.
Still, all of the hard work from the cast and occasional flashes of brilliance make this Hamlet worth sitting through from beginning to end. Beard gives an arresting performance as Hamlet, cutting through the clutter that has accumulated in the play's numerous famous speeches to uncover the conflicted young man beneath. His final confrontation with Ophelia (a very good Kelly Nelson) starts with a sort of playfulness that turns to raw rage when he realizes he is being spied upon. Stone's barely controlled fury feels absolutely real — as though at any moment it could escalate into violence as the character loses control.
Stone is pure rage as the son of the man Hamlet accidentally killed and the sister of the woman he once loved and then spurned, and who, in turn, committed suicide amid the wreckage of her young life. His fire brings some needed energy to the third act, while the final duel between Laertes and Hamlet may have audience members counting their own fingers to make sure none got cut off during the brutal and intimate battle.
Art Peden makes some deliberate and intriguing choices as Claudius. Any good antagonist needs to think he is the star of the show, and at times this is more the tragedy of Claudius than of Hamlet. That makes Claudius's late-night confession particularly affecting. That scene becomes the emotional core of the piece, letting all that happens after become the fallout from this one evening that eventually leads to a ballroom full of corpses.