No other production in Boston this season is likely to unfold in a setting quite as majestic as that of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Hamlet.’’
An itinerant troupe that never stays in one venue for long, the theater company is staging Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy inside the sanctuary of the Church of the Covenant in the Back Bay, a spacious and venerable house of worship that features stained-glass windows, decorative arches, a gleaming chandelier, and a ceiling that seems to soar halfway to heaven.
For good and ill, that imposing environment governs the style and tone of this “Hamlet,’’ which is directed by Doug Lockwood and stars Omar Robinson in the title role.
Back in 1973, the church contributed to a noteworthy chapter of Boston theater history when it served as home to a Theatre Company of Boston production of “Richard III’’ that was directed by David Wheeler and starred a young Al Pacino, riding a new wave of superstardom in the wake of “The Godfather.’’ The audience got its first glimpse of Pacino’s Richard when he poked his head around the side of the church’s pulpit.
In “Hamlet,’’ we first see Robinson in a center aisle as the prince of Denmark engages in barbed conversation with a duo standing at the pulpit whose relationship has plunged him into a Freudian nightmare: his mother, Gertrude (Marianna Bassham), and her new husband, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Ross MacDonald). Claudius gained crown and queen the old-fashioned way: by murdering his own brother, Hamlet’s father. Now dad’s ghost has commanded Hamlet to seek revenge on the villainous usurper.
It’s a heavy burden, but it doesn’t seem so to this Hamlet. Robinson’s portrayal comes down emphatically on the side of “To be.’’ The actor has chosen, or has been directed, to play Hamlet as a vigorous and commanding man of action, seemingly untrammeled by the crises of will, spirit, and resolution we usually associate with the character. There are few signs of paralyzing introspection, of a man struggling to solve the riddle of himself.
However extreme his agitation, this Hamlet invariably seems in control, seldom in despair. The overall effect is to diminish the will-he-or-won’t-he tension audiences should feel on some level about Hamlet’s lethal designs on Claudius, no matter how well they know the outcome of the play.
Robinson’s delivery often verges on the declamatory, as if he is trying to fill the vast space of the church with the sheer force of his performance. And indeed, his Hamlet has an undeniable charisma; Robinson generates excitement by throwing himself so unreservedly into this monster of a role. He captures the prince’s wit and his maestro-like delight in orchestrating the actions of others, such as poor, hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But a Hamlet without soul-sickness is a Hamlet without depth.
Something similar could be said of the production overall. Though this “Hamlet’’ is uncommonly striking from a visual standpoint and its performances are generally capable, revelations and insights into these well-known characters are scarce. Poornima Kirby, who plays the doomed Ophelia, is affecting, but she doesn’t reach the outer limits of Ophelia’s escalating desperation and eventual madness. The mild-mannered demeanor of MacDonald’s Claudius doesn’t suggest the scheming heart of a man whose ambitions, actions, and lust have triggered all this drama.
Bassham brings an icy self-possession and more than a trace of self-awareness to Gertrude: This queen is no oblivious pawn, as she is sometimes portrayed. Richard Snee’s expert comic timing yields an amusing portrayal of the sententious, advice-giving Polonius. (Snee also plays the Ghost). The climactic battle between Robinson’s Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother Laertes (Alexander Platt) features one of the most dynamic swordfights enacted on a local stage in a while. (Kudos to violence designer Ted Hewlett, who choreographed the fierce skirmish).
Much of the play transpires on a stage that Actors’ Shakespeare Project installed in front of the altar (set design is by Jenna McFarland Lord). In one understated and effective touch, Hamlet systematically extinguishes the altar candles, one by one, after vowing revenge on Claudius. Director Lockwood finds ways to open up the action, sending actors hurtling up and down the aisles and sometimes locating them in an aisle for the duration of a scene. This gives the audience, who are seated on pews, an excuse to look around the Church of the Covenant’s vast and beautiful space. What they find is that the interior of this church can’t be beat. I just wish there were more glimpses of Hamlet’s interior.
Play by William Shakespeare
Directed by Doug Lockwood
Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at Church of the Covenant, Boston. Through Nov. 6. Tickets $30-$50, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.