Hamlet is the Big Enchilada of English-language theater. Depending upon the ingredients, and the presentation, William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy is quite a spicy meal for the Triangle theatergoer or—to mix a few metaphors — a delicious peek into the heart of darkness in the Danish court after King Hamlet (played by Rocky Mount actor Roger E. Drake in Burning Coal Theatre Company’s current modern-dress presentation) dies unexpectedly in his sleep and his grieving widow, Queen Gertrude (Corey Tazmania), shocks the court by marrying the new king, her former brother-in-law Claudius (Holden Hansen), in unseemly haste, while her temperamental son Prince Hamlet (Brian McManamon) sulks on the sidelines, perhaps in an Oedipal funk.
Young Hamlet broods and broods and broods some more over his father’s untimely death and his mother’s precipitous remarriage. After Horatio (Jeffrey Dillard), Hamlet’s bosom buddy and fellow student at the University of Wittenberg, excitedly confirms the rumors that the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunts the ramparts of Elsinore, Horatio persuades young Hamlet to accompany him on a fateful nocturnal encounter with that same restless spirit. After that, Hamlet adopts an “antic disposition” and embarks upon a clever campaign to ascertain the guilt of his treacherous uncle and, perhaps, his mother, too, and to avenge his father’s foul murder. By play’s end, the stage is amply stained crimson by the blood of the guilty and the innocent alike.
New York actor Brian McManamon is an acceptable if unspectacular Hamlet. He knows his monologues and delivers them crisply. He is an urbane actor performing a plum part tackled by all the great actors, but his Hamlet never quite soars into the theatrical ether to join the great Hamlets of Edwin Booth, John Barrymore, and Sir Laurence Olivier.
University of North Carolina at Pembroke theater instructor Holden Hansen and New York actress Corey Tazmania likewise breathe life into the murderous King Claudius and his clueless (or is she?) Queen Gertrude. But they never fully explore all the nuances of those complicated characters.
Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis has Jeffrey Dillard as Horatio have a hissy fit and fall over backward after he encounters the Ghost (a sepulchral cameo by Roger Drake). Reconceiving Horatio as a nebbish is a jarring false note, and it takes a while for the audience to recover and to take Horatio—and this production—seriously again.
Lighting designer Jeffrey Salzberg and sound designer Becca Easley create just the right atmospherics for a spooky cold night in foggy old Denmark, and costume designer Joie Martin dresses the cast most appropriately in somber colors. But having the actors seated around the tiny stage of Pittman Auditorium at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, NC, is another unwelcome distraction—especially when their coming and going in the background is all-too-visible as pivotal scenes unfold in the foreground.
Raleigh actor and St. Augustine’s College theater-arts faculty member George Jack cuts a fine figure as the old windbag Polonius, a roly-poly royal counselor whose pompous platitudes add a note of levity to the otherwise somber proceedings. Burning Coal regulars Ashlee Quinones and Stephen LeTrent, both of Raleigh, add a kittenish but emotionally fragile Ophelia, whose bent-double mad scene is a little too grotesque, and a hot-tempered Laertes, who finally gets his revenge for Hamlet’s brutal humiliation of his sister—and finds it not so sweet.
New York actor Scott Price and Raleigh actor Lucius Robinson make a surprisingly passive and pedestrian Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Al Singer adds a pair of zesty portrayals as the palace guard Francisco and a Gravedigger. And Raleigh’s Jan Doub Morgan and Angela Santucci contribute crisp cameos as the Player King and Queen in the play-within-the-play.
Last Friday night, the Burning Coal production of Hamlet had not quite gelled. The Shakespearean diction of some of the supporting players badly needed sharpening, as did their projection of their lines. Moreover, the gimmicks of keeping the cast onstage throughout the show and having Hamlet pop up on balconies to address the audience directly proved more distracting than edifying. There is still much work to do to bring this Hamlet up to Burning Coal’s lofty standards.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Hamlet Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 20-22 and 27-29, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 23 and 30, at 2 p.m. in Pittman Auditorium at Saint Mary’s School, 900 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($14 students, seniors 65+, and active-military personnel), except $5 Student Rush (available at the door, five minutes before curtain, with a valid student ID) and $10 Thursdays and $10 per person for groups of 10 or more. 919/834-4001 or via etix @ the presenter's site. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/season.html [inactive 10/08]. Video: http://www.burningcoal.org/hamletPromo-forWeb.mov [inactive 10/08]. Shakespeare Resources (courtesy the University of Virginia): http://etext.virginia.edu/shakespeare/ [inactive 3/10]. E-Text (courtesy UVa): http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaHamF.html (1623 First Folio Edition) and http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MobHaml.html (1866 Globe Edition).