Run, do not walk, to see Hamlet at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. Director Clare Moncrief has gathered a top-notch cast and created a world that's fresh and fascinating, allowing audiences to rediscover what makes the tragedy an enduring masterpiece.
In the play, Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, returns home from the university to find his father, the king, dead and his uncle Claudius wearing the crown and married to his mother Gertrude. These events happened in such quick succession that Hamlet quips that the rush was a question of thrift: "The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."
The ghost of the former king appears on the rampart and tells his son that Claudius poisoned him in his sleep. The ghost demands revenge, and Hamlet struggles to steel his will to avenge his father. Claudius endeavors to calm and dominate the young man.
Though there are a good number of satellite plots and characters, the central battle is between Hamlet (Dave Davis) and his murderous uncle (Danny Bowen). Davis gives us an energetic, believable young prince, and the actor's own youth makes the character more real. Bowen is at the top of his game as the villain: He disguises his guilt with an outpouring of charm and congeniality. But Hamlet has a troupe enact a play-within-the-play, and when Claudius sees an actor king murdered in the same way Claudius murdered his brother, he loses control. He's now a trapped beast who must kill or be killed. One doesn't tend to think of Hamlet as a thriller, but it is. The stage is littered with corpses in the final scene.
In the subplots, the pompous yet likeable Polonius (deftly brought to life by Martin Covert) and his children Laertes (P. J. McKinnie) and Ophelia (Nysa Loudon) are woven inextricably into the story. We also see the wrenching confrontation between Hamlet and his compromised mother (the skillful Ashley Winston Nolan).
With its stabbings, murders, poisonings, usurpations, drownings and themes of vengeance and frustrated love, Hamlet could work easily as a Mexican telenovela.
Diana Cupsa's set relies mostly on occasional props and furniture placed on the bold geometric floor, and Cecile Casey Covert's costumes suggest Edwardian times. It's always weird to see characters in modern dress pull out swords or daggers. In this case, the problem is not too disturbing. You're transported to a sort of imaginary Elsinore wonderland.
As usual, the Bard deals with large casts, which makes it hard to give credit where it's due, but a tip of the hat to Jarrod Mims Smith (Horatio) and many others who ably rounded out the cast. — DALT WONK