Omar Robinson as the title character in Hamlet, directed by Doug Lockwood, at Actors' Shakespeare Project.
Omar Robinson as the title character in Hamlet, directed by Doug Lockwood, at Actors' Shakespeare Project.
(© Nile Scott Hawver)

An atmospheric, visually stunning Hamlet takes the stage at Actors' Shakespeare Project.

The beautiful thing about Shakespeare's plays is that there are seldom any wrong answers. For over 400 years, his works have been reimagined for the modern stage, and his texts, settings, and just about anything else you can imagine tinkered with. While this Actors' Shakespeare Project production of Hamlet does not seek to redefine the play, it features a central performance that is fearlessly contemporary, a stark contrast to this otherwise classic revival.

If Omar Robinson, who plays Hamlet with equal parts allure and fervor, is to receive top billing, then it is only fair that the Church of the Covenant, this production's venue, is billed as costar. It is impossible to imagine a more stunning setting, and the space is utilized brilliantly. The mood for the evening is set long before the action even begins, with the church's sky-high ceilings, Tiffany windows, and opulent chandelier. It makes you wonder if this is what Elsinore Castle might really have looked like.

Under the direction of Doug Lockwood, one of the founding members of Actors' Shakespeare Project, the play unfolds with the crackling intensity of a fire that grows steadily over the course of the evening. While Hamlet is often described as claustrophobic as the walls close in on both Hamlet and Denmark (the impending invasion has been struck from this production), Lockwood's production often feels, instead, like the roof could be blown off at any moment.

The cuts that have been made to the script streamline the central crisis and allow the story to unfold in a way that is more appealing to a modern audience. Purists may find fault with some omissions, like the iconic "Who's there?" opening on the parapets and nearly all mention of Fortinbras (the ending is surely different without him), but this is an accessible, seductive production nonetheless.

Most of the players (the cast has been reduced to eight) take on multiple roles, which highlights the immense talent of the cast. Peter G. Andersen (Horatio and Rosencrantz) is a major asset, as is Alexander Platt, who plays Laertes, Guildenstern, and Lucianus. The intensity of Platt is a swell complement to Andersen's boyish charm, and both exhibit remarkable range in their multiple roles.

Richard Snee couldn't possibly be better as the bumbling Polonius, and Poornima Kirby is a lovely Ophelia, excelling especially as she descends into madness. As Claudius, the conniving new king who murdered his brother and married his widow, Ross Macdonald is understated yet frightening. The astounding Marianna Bassham, who seems to be able to muster different emotions as easily as most of us blink our eyes, plays Gertrude. (She also doubles as the gravedigger, the only regrettable bit of doubling.) There has always been debate over how much Gertrude knew and when she knew it, but here, there's no doubt that she is blindsided with the truth of her first husband's death.

Omar Robinson's performance as Hamlet is surely divisive. Absent is the existential dilemma of a melancholy young man trying to make sense of what has happened, who he is, and where he's going. Instead, this is a Hamlet of high-octane fury, dead-set on avenging his father's death. The audience need not decide for themselves if Robinson's Hamlet is truly mad – it is quite clear that he is not. His Hamlet is less Laurence Olivier and more Robert Downey Jr., punctuating his lines with a modern sarcasm and a relentless hamminess which can sometimes be a distraction. Still, it is a fascinating portrayal that shows off Robinson's gift for intensity, even if it feels a little too modern for the rest of the production.

Visually, this Hamlet is a cinematic, camera-ready stunner. Deb Sullivan's shadow-heavy lighting design is transfixing, and the costumes of Jessica Pribble are dazzling. Violence designer Ted Hewlett must also be congratulated for his realistic fight choreography.

Although the power of this Hamlet is somewhat tempered by the extreme streamlining of the plot and by the larger-than-life depiction of Hamlet, it is still a transfixing experience that results in one of the best-looking productions of this year. In a time of high-stakes politics, it's nice to be able to sit back and watch someone else's drama unfold.