'Hamlet' thrives in 1920s gangland Chicago

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By Doug Deuchler

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I know Shakespeare purists don't appreciate a change in period whenever a production uproots the play from the Elizabethan Age and transplants it into another era. But I often find such time shifts exhilarating. We not only get to enjoy the poetry and characters with fresh eyes and ears, but we experience heightened interest as we watch how the plot unfolds in its new time frame. 

Such is the case with Oak Park Festival Theatre's fresh and forceful Hamlet, set during the Jazz Age in 1928. I hesitate to say this tragedy of revenge, with its horrific, climactic accumulation of corpses, is "fun," but this outdoor production in Austin Gardens truly is. I found myself immediately absorbed and delighted.

The fact that the period update works so well is a testament to the universality and relevance of the 500-year-old play's themes. 

The sharp performances and strong direction by Lavina Jadwani make this a unique and powerful experience. It is everything a good Hamlet should be: beautiful and haunting, yet painfully tragic. 

The setting is not creepy Elsinore Castle in late medieval Denmark but rather the Hotel Denmark, a smart Art Deco establishment, during the roaring mob warfare of late-1920s Prohibition days. Men wear fedoras and double-breasted suits, pack pistols and hip flasks while the women are dressed in shimmering flapper gowns. It's sophisticated, with an underlying mood of anxious dread.

In the title role, Michael McKeogh delivers a textured performance, mining every phrase — clownish one moment, raging the next. His brooding, self-absorbed Hamlet is a dangerous presence: physical, intense, and emotionally unstable. (My only gripe is that the actor is bearded — actually quite rare in the clean-shaven '20s.)

Informed by the ghost of his father that his brother Claudius has murdered him, Hamlet schemes to take revenge. But the moody young Dane is unsure how to proceed, so he delays with the horrible secret burdening him. 

Claudius, a conniving villain who trips on his own sins, is well played by Festival's artistic director, Jack Hickey. He's driven by power-lust. In the program, the character is identified not as King Claudius but as Claudius, The Boss. He has murdered his own brother and married his widow, Gertrude, Hamlet's mother.

Gertrude, portrayed by Kelly Lynn Hogan, conveys a sense of grace and dignity. Despite the electrifying friction between mother and son, the actress conveys her heartache over their ruptured relationship. 

Polonius, Claudius' cheerful, witty and officious right-hand man, is Michael Joseph Mitchell. Sara Pavlak is touching and passionate as doomed Ophelia, descending ever deeper into hysteria and madness due to her shattered romance. Her brother, honorable but misled Laertes, basically a decent guy, is played by Michael Mercer. 

Steadfast, noble Horatio, Hamlet's best friend, who opens and closes the show, is Michael Pogue. Hamlet's loyal buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are played by Matthew Gall and Luke Daigle.

Hamlet uses a visiting troupe of actors to stage a re-enactment of his father's death to watch Claudius' reaction.

 Will Clinger, the former host of Wild Chicago, adeptly plays three roles — Hamlet's dead father, whose ghostly presence appears periodically, the leading player of the itinerant acting troupe, and a philosophical grave-digger.

 This, the longest of all of Shakespeare's plays, can last 4½ hours. But this production, mercifully, uses a trimmed, compressed text. The performance runs about 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. The plot is kept intact, clarified and pared down, but the script never feels truncated or abrupt. 

 It's amazing to hear how many of the most famous lines in all literature are in this play — from "To be or not to be" to "Get thee to a nunnery" — as well as countless phrases that have become the titles of books and films.

 The 1920s costumes by Rachel Supniewski are vivid and period-perfect. Gertrude wears especially eye-catching beaded evening gowns.

 Belinda Bremner is the dramaturg, a term we see more frequently of late. It means one who does historical and cultural research. Leigh Barrett is the stage manager.

 The fight scenes are excitingly choreographed. There's no swordplay, of course. This is 1928, not 1601. I won't provide a further spoiler but suffice it to say the violence is staged in a very thrilling fashion. Yet no guns are fired.

 The classy set is designed by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod. It rained much of last week. I walked the dog through Austin Gardens the day before opening night and was worried that the set seemed so minimalist — unpainted and vague. But I was needlessly nervous; it really came together. The deco setting, with ferns atop a slew of columns, is stunning and attractive, like a set from MGM's Grand Hotel.

 I was initially surprised to notice children in the audience in Austin Gardens on opening night. But as the play unfolded, I realized Hamlet is perhaps the most accessible and intense of all the Bard's works. With a little background prep, older kids would be able to enjoy this exciting story.

 Oak Park Festival Theatre has opened its 40th season with an impressive and enjoyable production.

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