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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hamlet presented by the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, MN

HamletHamlet by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can you say about Hamlet that hasn't already been said? It has become part of our popular culture. Famous lines like, "To thine own self be true", "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well (said while holding a skull)" and, of course, "To be or not to be, that is the question." It has been parodied numerous times, two of which come to mind right now. One is Gilligan's Island turning it into a musical (with music from Carmen). The other is the movie Last Action Hero, where Hamlet becomes an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie. (Arnold: To be or not to be. [lights cigar] Not to be. [explosion in background]). So why has it lasted over 400 years and become so ingrained in our popular culture? It deals with universal themes, death, betrayal, war, love, depression. It also deals with the supernatural. Last night, I attended a production of this play at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, MN. These are my thoughts on the production.

In the play, Hamlet's father, the King, was killed 2 months earlier. His uncle, Claudius, marries Hamlet's mother, the Queen, just 1 month after the King's death. Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, the King's councilor, is in love with Hamlet, but Hamlet may or may not be in love with her. One night, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to Hamlet and says that Claudius killed him (Hamlet's father), and that Hamlet must take revenge. Hamlet meets a group of traveling actors, and stages a play to reenact the killing. This outrages Claudius, who sends Hamlet to exile in England. Hamlet returns to kill Claudius, but kills Polonius by mistake. Ophelia, overwrought by Hamlet's rejection of her love and by her father's death, drowns herself. Claudius then plots with Laertes, son of Polonius, to kill Hamlet. They put poison on the end of the sword, and poison in the wine. In the final duel, Hamlet picks up the sword with poison and kills Laertes, but Laertes has also stabbed Hamlet with a poisoned sword. The Queen drinks from the cup intended for Hamlet, and dies. In his final act, Hamlet kills Claudius right before dying himself.

The Festival production focused on the theatricality of the play. The actors came out at the beginning, introduced themselves, and took part of their costumes off of an on-stage costume rack. This is appropriate, since there is an element of theatricality to the play itself. This is especially evident with the play within the play, but also in the many soliloquies in the play, where the actors speak directly to the audience. There was a line of chairs in the back that kept going up and down, again emphasizing the theatricality of the play. The actors are dressed in modern business suits and dresses. It almost looked like the story of President Claudius and White House Chief of Staff Polonius. Yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are here. The Festival is also performing Rosencreantz and Guildenstern are Dead this year, so they'll be back, played by the same actors who played them here. I learned after the performance that parts of the script were cut (not surprising, given the total running length of the play). I didn't notice any missing elements. It went seamlessly. There was some humor in the play. Polonius said, "Brevity is the soul of wit," then proceeded to talk on and on. Shakespeare knew it was needed in a play like this.

Special commendation goes to Andrew Carlson, who played Hamlet. This is one of the most demanding roles in Shakespeare's plays, and he portrays Hamlet excellently. You're never quite sure whether his madness is real or faked. It's just on the edge. When he starts the "to be or not to be" soliloquy, you wonder if he actually will commit suicide. The rest of the cast was excellent as well. Michael Fitzpatrick as Claudius, Leslie Brott as the Queen, Steve Hendrickson as Polonius, Sigrid Sutter as Ophelia, and all of the rest I don't have space to mention here. This has been a request of Festival audiences for many years. It was well worth the wait.

For more information on the Great River Shakespeare Festival, go to

For more information on Winona, MN, go to

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