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updated: 9/21/2012 11:24 AM

Writers' 'Hamlet' a brilliantly acted portrait of grief

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  • Scott Parkinson, center, is riveting as Hamlet in the Writers' Theatre production, which also stars Shannon Cochran as Gertrude and Michael Canavan as Claudius.

      Scott Parkinson, center, is riveting as Hamlet in the Writers' Theatre production, which also stars Shannon Cochran as Gertrude and Michael Canavan as Claudius.

  • Hamlet (Scott Parkinson), right, converses with a gravedigger (Larry Yando) in director Michael Halberstam's intelligent production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for Writers' Theatre.

      Hamlet (Scott Parkinson), right, converses with a gravedigger (Larry Yando) in director Michael Halberstam's intelligent production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for Writers' Theatre.

  • Scott Parkinson collaborates with longtime friend director Michael Halberstam in his production of "Hamlet," running through Nov. 11 at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

      Scott Parkinson collaborates with longtime friend director Michael Halberstam in his production of "Hamlet," running through Nov. 11 at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

  • Queen Gertrude (Shannon Cochran) realizes how profoundly her husband's death and her hasty remarriage has affected her distraught son (Scott Parkinson) in Writers' Theatre's exceptional production of "Hamlet."

      Queen Gertrude (Shannon Cochran) realizes how profoundly her husband's death and her hasty remarriage has affected her distraught son (Scott Parkinson) in Writers' Theatre's exceptional production of "Hamlet."

  • Video: "Hamlet" preview

  • Video: "Hamlet" clip 2

  • Video: "Hamlet" clip 1

  • Video: "Hamlet" clip 3

 
 

A potent reminder of a grieving son's anguish greets Writers' Theatre audiences the moment they enter the Glencoe theater.

Casting their eyes upstage, they confront the gaping, charred hole defacing an imposing, prisonlike wall. It serves as a backdrop for director Michael Halberstam's engaging, brilliantly reasoned "Hamlet," a meticulously acted production featuring a masterful performance by Scott Parkinson in the title role.

The breach suggests Norway's Fortinbras is not the only enemy Denmark's unsteady regime confronts. Set designer Collette Pollard's striking visual has a more personal meaning in that the damage recalls an open wound, a symbol for the nearly incapacitating sorrow over the death of his father that consumes the Danish prince.

Of course Hamlet's isn't the only soul so tormented; Ophelia and Laertes know as well as he does what it's like to lose a parent. It is grief that underscores this tale of vengeance and madness and compels the characters.

Significantly, the aforementioned rupture is never repaired, even though material to do so (a conspicuous, tarp-covered pallet of bricks that later serves another purpose) is within reach. Though less powerful than Shakespeare's language, the image nevertheless speaks volumes.

And it is but one component in Halberstam's informed, highly resonant production. His "Hamlet" is intelligent yet unpretentious, sophisticated but accessible. What's more, Halberstam streamlines the play without diminishing its impact. It may seem odd to describe as swift the pace of a play that spans nearly three hours, but it's accurate.

Much of the credit rests with the accomplished cast, who speak Shakespeare's dialogue as if they were born to it. That is especially true of Parkinson, the astute Chicago Shakespeare Theater veteran, who effortlessly delivers Hamlet's memorable soliloquies. Heralded by a flourish of light and sound, they reveal a deeply distraught, frustrated, yet self-aware and thoughtful man who stands at the brink of madness (so he would have everyone think), then backs away. Parkinson's deeply felt performance makes crystal clear Hamlet's motives and reasoning. He offers about as thorough and convincing a glimpse into the prince's soul as I've experienced.

Parkinson's is not the only performance of note. Chicago-area A-lister Larry Yando plays each of his roles with typical brio. Eyes covered in contact lenses and voice eerily modified, Yando delivers a spine-tingling turn as the Ghost, a man condemned whose torment has made him his son's unwitting tormentor. Yando is equally impressive as the Player King opposite Parkinson's Player Queen, and supplying shrewd commentary as the Gravedigger.

Shannon Cochran's Gertrude -- the latest in a series of impressive Writers' performances -- reveals a queen's maternal affection tempered by guilt for her hasty remarriage, which has undone her son. Michael Canavan is a cooly resigned Claudius, and the inimitable Ross Lehman removes Polonius from the realm of caricature to reveal the man's inherent dignity and affection for his children. Also deserving mention are Kareem Bandealy's unfailingly loyal Horatio and Timothy Edward Kane's Laertes, a fundamentally decent man who, like his sister Ophelia (Liesel Matthews), is undone by grief.

Costume designer David Hyman pairs contemporary clothes with period dress, in a color palette suitable for a funeral. Yet, as he wraps the necks and shoulders of the characters in silk and fur, the hems are left frayed -- further confirmation that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.

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