The audience poured an avalanche of applause over the cast of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of “Hamlet” following its opening performance April 19 — uproarious cheering, whistling and standing ovations galore. But I did not stand, and instead left the theater feeling indifferent and unchanged.
“Hamlet” is a delicate creature — a kaleidoscope of metaphor, meter, vulnerability and savagery. An actor or director can easily lose themself under the weight of such a lauded work given its language and length. Too serious, and the sincerity is taken as melodrama — too lighthearted, and the power in Shakespeare’s punch is lost.
Though parts of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s cast and production were admirable, outgoing artistic director Ted Pappas failed to fully capture the emotion and profundity of “Hamlet.”
This adaptation is set in the early 20th century, where leotards and swords are swapped for suits and guns. A safe choice, yet an unoriginal one, considering the numerous contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s work — think David Tennant as Hamlet in the 2009 BBC television movie, Richard Loncraine’s 1995 adaptation of “Richard III” starring Ian McKellen in 1930s England or Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet.”
And while Shakespeare’s universality and timelessness make “Hamlet” easily understood in a modern context, this decision merely serves the audience a palatable period piece, rather than enlighten any portion of the text.
Director Ted Pappas kept things traditional with the play’s language and length, staying true to its original script despite the different era. But the decision to aesthetically modernize the characters and setting came off as dull instead of exciting. Surely we’ve seen this “Hamlet” before.
Although the production was unoriginal, I’ve never seen a Prince of Denmark like Matthew Amendt’s — which might be for good reason.
Amendt unleashed a boyish irreverence on stage, a strange decision given Hamlet’s age — in the text he is 30. Slender and spry,Amendt seems to have given way to a youthful and inappropriately-humorous Hamlet, drawing laughs from parts of the audience at moments that did not call for much comedy.
In arguably the most recognizable soliloquy in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, the “to be, or not to be” monologue, Prince Hamlet contemplates the meaning of his life and the nature of death. One might expect a heavy, grief-stricken Hamlet, or, like Kenneth Branagh in the 1996 film, one who is deliberate and knowing. Instead, Amendt was flat and underwhelming.
In addition to a miscast Hamlet, Paul Terzenbach faltered as Hamlet’s friend-turned-enemy Laertes, a weak presence with rigid delivery which rendered him unconvincing. In terms of production, sound director Zach Moore’s atmospheric music for King Hamlet’s ghost scenes was more silly than haunting, and his trumpet sound bites for Claudius’ pompous court felt awkward and childish.
Despite disimpassioned moments and sometimes sleepy soliloquies, audiences will be impressed by David Whalen’s Claudius, who is a convincing villain to Caris Vujcec’s shadowy Queen Gertrude.
If there is a single moment to champion in the entire play, it is the climactic finale. An outrageously dynamic duel between Hamlet and Laertes choreographed by Randy Kovitz is compelling and will wake any viewer who may have dozed off in their seat.
This production of “Hamlet” marks the end of Ted Pappas’ career as artistic director for the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Marya Sea Kaminski, the 40-year-old associate artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, will replace Pappas when he officially resigns in August.
Kaminski has put on a number of original dramas and musicals in Seattle, including a musical adaptation of Homer’s epic, “The Odyssey,” in which she squeezed more than 150 Seattleites on the stage of the public theater. She has put on a number of classical works with a imaginative twist to them — like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” but with an all-female cast.
The announcement came earlier this year that Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 2018-19 season will be titled “Welcome Home” and will include contemporary titles such as the Pulitzer-winning drama “Sweat,” the 2017 sequel “A Doll’s House Part 2” and Kaminski’s personal adaptation of “The Tempest,” in which the lead character of Prospero will be played by a woman.
There’s no denying Pappas’ role in shaping Pittsburgh’s theater scene. For the last 18 consecutive seasons, he has been a friend to the City and an admirable director to the theater community. Pappas will forever be a name for which the fans of theater in Pittsburgh will praise. I strongly doubt that his weak “Hamlet” will tarnish his reputation with Pittsburgh audiences.
“Hamlet” will be running until Saturday, May 19, at the O’Reilly Theater located in the Cultural District of downtown Pittsburgh. For tickets and pricing, visit Pittsburgh Public Theater’s main website at www.ppt.org.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the lead actor’s name as Matthew Ardent. His name is Matthew Amendt. The Pitt News regrets this error.