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The Shakespeare Theatre Company finds Hamlet in a modern world.

Madeleine Potter as Gertrude and Michael Urie as Hamlet in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Hamlet, directed by Michael Kahn.
(© Scott Suchman)

The current Hamlet at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is in modern dress as if to make sure the audience gets the point: This is a play for now. Director Michael Kahn has chosen to strip his Hamlet of velvets and furs because he feels that the play speaks to our time, when autocracy is on the rise and despots are threatening to take over the world. His Hamlet lives in a "paranoid surveillance state," Kahn writes in the program notes. Trust is a thing of the past and everyone spies on one another.

Yet Kahn's decision to settle his actors in the present does not hinder in any way the established delivery of this Hamlet. It takes but a moment to adjust to modern-day soldiers dressed as black-garbed security guards sitting at a desk watching a ghost walk on televised castle ramparts. After that, the plot is familiar: Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, has killed Hamlet's father and married his mother, Gertrude, and Hamlet is seeking vengeance on Claudius for those two heinous acts.

Shakespeare's poetry is delivered impeccably by the entire cast, but it is Michael Urie as Hamlet who most clearly outlines the negative effect this "surveillance state" has on him. From the moment he arrives onstage and delivers his first soliloquy in Act 1 ("Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt"), Urie's Hamlet is upset, his hands in constant motion showing how nervous he is. Urie continues in this state of anxiety throughout the play, at times heightening the intensity of his emotional stress, sometimes laughing at it. It is an extraordinary performance, which offers examples for the unnamed "madness" that scholars have assigned to Hamlet through the years.

Alan Cox is powerful as Claudius, who has a vicious and unpredictable double nature. Cox's Claudius is unctuous and magnanimous to members of the court when the public is at hand. When he is alone, however, he plots against Hamlet, whom he plans to kill. Madeleine Potter plays Gertrude beautifully, as a mother who truly loves her son but is at first oblivious to Claudius's evil nature. Robert Joy is excellent as Polonius, the fusty old Lord Chamberlain who has advice for everyone, particularly his children, Ophelia and Laertes. Oyin Oladejo is lovely as Ophelia, playing her as a young woman who clearly loves Hamlet until his madness (real or assumed) drives her mad as well. Paul Cooper plays Laertes as an unfeeling, angry young man whose loss of his father and sister drives him to go over to the enemy.

Kelsey Rainwater and Ryan Spahn perform the roles of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively, acting as Hamlet's friends while also spying on him for Claudius. Their lighthearted banter and playful attitude toward Hamlet is the source of a great deal of the play's comedy. Keith Baxter excels at three roles: the Ghost of Hamlet's father, the Player King, and the Gravedigger. In the last two of these roles, Baxter provides considerable comedy. Federico Rodriguez is solid and credible as Hamlet's best friend.

Scene designer John Coyne creates a gray concrete-walled environment for this Hamlet, with balconies and stairways made of steel. Lighting designer Yi Zhao uses a predominantly flat, gray palette of light. Only when the Players come to entertain at court is there a burst of color in their costumes, designed by Jess Goldstein. Gertrude wears several colorful costumes, a tailored red brocade suit and a long mauve skirt being the most effective. The men generally wear dark suits. Hamlet wears a dark outfit indicating that he is still in mourning.

While we'll never really know why Hamlet did the things he did, this beautifully nuanced production may help shed some light on his choices throughout the play. Just before he dies, Hamlet asks Horatio to tell "this harsh story." Kahn, Urie, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company ensemble magnificently display what happens when what had once been a world of love and beauty becomes a "harsh" place of fear and force.