Review: APT's 'Hamlet'

Matt Schwader shines in the title role

Aug 8, 2013

Cristina Panfilio and Matt Schwader in 'Hamlet'

Cristina Panfilio and Matt Schwader in 'Hamlet'

Photo by Carissa Dixon

It’s every male actor’s dream to play Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark, one of the shining touchstones of the classical canon. But stepping into the shoes of Hamlet is also a little like being handed a Rubik’s Cube with spikes on every square.  While plum Bard roles like Richard III and Henry V can be played with a more direct and forceful approach, evoking Hamlet’s mix of madness, melancholy and maddening inaction is, to say the least, a challenge.

It’s the puzzle on which every production of Shakespeare’s signature tragedy hinges, and it’s a challenge that Matthew Schwader absolutely nails in American Players Theatre’s stately version, playing in repertory up the hill through October 4.

As a prince grieving the death of his father (James Pickering) Schwader rides the Tilt-o-Whirl of Hamlet’s emotions as if he owns and commands each one. After encountering his dead dad’s shade stalking the Elsinore parapets, they come like bullets from a musket: The contempt he aims at the blowsy and platitude-spewing Polonius (David Daniel); the agony he feels when he’s convinced Ophelia (Cristina Panfilio) has played him false; the rage at learning his buffoonish pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Ryan Imhoff and Steve Haggard) are now tools of the newly crowned Claudius (James DeVita); the barely contained triumph and anticipation he feels as the Players’ rendition of his father’s murder threatens to unsettle the king.  Lesser actors might have missed the nuances, but Schwader energizes each scene, and it’s easy to feel his Hamlet using them as a means to an end. 

He’s matched in passion and fury by DeVita, in a performance as conniving as it is ruthless. DeVita’s Claudius is a usurper who not only knows what he wants, but isn’t at all afraid to flaunt his adulterous spoils—Gertrude (Deborah Staples) and Claudius put on a master’s class in PDA, to the clear discomfort of the court (and the audience). Where Hamlet hesitates, Claudius acts. For longtime APT fans, it’s interesting to compare DeVita’s shift from playing Hamlet, a role he handled with cool remove in APT’s 2003 production, to this fiery Claudius.

Panfilio’s Ophelia is the other revelation here. Her initial scenes with Polonius and her brother Laertes (Eric Parks) don’t hint at the power to come. At first, she’s a meek and agreeable maid, gently allowing the adults to guide her conduct. But once she’s been sent ‘round the bend by lost love, conniving royalty and the death of her dad, Panfilio handles her portrayal of madness as searingly as Schwader does. As she almost literally falls apart on stage, the audience feels the ache of betrayal, loss and shattered expectations from an entirely different perspective.

The staging by Takeshi Kata and Andrew Boyce reflects the chilly prison Denmark has become, all steel and unfeeling stone. Maybe that’s reflected some in Deborah Staples's Gertrude, one of the production’s few false chords. Gertrude’s hardly one of the Bard’s strongest female roles, but here, she’s scarcely more than jewelry draped around Claudius’s neck. Any sense of a troubled soul is distressingly absent, even once Schwader has forced her to confront her sins.   

In one of the production’s most telling tableaux, Hamlet reaches out to hold the hands of his terrified mother and the ghost of his dead dad, and it suddenly becomes clear where director John Langs's vision of Hamlet lies—our prince is just a guy who wants his family back together and knows it can never be. No audience is ever able to fully fathom the depths of Hamlet’s feigned--and genuine--madness, but this is an emotion that hits home.    

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about and reviewing Madison-area theater for nearly 15 years.

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