I was initially reserved walking into Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of “Hamlet.” Not only is Hamlet probably one of my least favorite plays ever, this production is also presented in original pronunciation, which in the past I have not had great success at understanding. So the production had two strikes against it already. I said to myself “It’s going to have to be one hell of a production for me to like it.” Well…Director Chris Cotterman and the cast of Hamlet made me eat my words because I absolutely loved it.
Now before I get too carried away with my praise let me clarify and say that my feelings about “Hamlet” remain intact, as a play I find it greatly overrated. However, this production was so finely executed that I discovered a new appreciation and respect for the text as well as an understanding of why so many do claim this to be the greatest play ever written (Editor’s Note: It is definitely top ten.)
Almost all of the production’s success can be placed at the feet of Director Chris Cotterman. The stakes of the play and the characters are crystalline clear from beginning to end. The pace of the play felt like a train constantly derailing and the audience forced to watch without being able to do anything. This is exactly what you hope for when watching a tragedy, but it is still so rarely successfully executed at this level of theatre. However, even with this dramatically tense pacing, Cotterman still managed to treat the play in a beautifully understated manner. It would be easy to hear Hamlet’s famous speeches and not realize they were famous because of the deftly subtle approach Cotterman pushed his actors towards. Cotterman’s respect for the script and passion for this production seeps through every intentional choice that was made, and his directorial hand is clearly seen in every moment of the play.
The other part of the formula for the show’s success was the titular character played by Terrence Fleming. Fleming did the impossible for me, he showed me a Hamlet I have never seen before. One of my biggest issues with “Hamlet” as a play is that all too often the main character is portrayed as a privileged, emo-wannabe, snot-nosed, insufferable know-it-all, who is almost impossible to ever root for or even care about. This could not be farther away from Fleming’s portrayal. Fleming’s Hamlet was calculated and cunning, manipulative but also heartfelt, funny and serious, genuine but also inauthentic. He held these contradictions so close to his chest that it became impossible for us to ever know exactly what he was feeling or thinking at any moment, keeping us on our toes and constantly engaged. Above all what Fleming nails best is Hamlet’s wit. Some of the best phrases in the English language are from Hamlet’s mouth and when done right they seem as though they could have been stolen off the “Paris is Burning” cutting room floor. Fleming crafts a stellar, grounded performance that upends the conventional interpretations of Shakespeare’s most well-known character.
“Hamlet” sinks or swims with the performance of its lead, but that’s not to say the ensemble doesn’t need to be equally as formidable. Erin Hanratty has a wonderful standout moment as Player 1, entering in true diva (a la Moira Rose) fashion and guiding the play through one of its most well-known parts. Madeleine Adele Koon and Sean Eustis as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz both turn out memorable performances as the bumbling acquaintances of Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are usually my least favorite part about Hamlet and these two made me laugh out loud multiple times! Melanie Bishop as Gertrude and Ethan Larsen as Horatio both brought such a deep authenticity to their characters that I found myself constantly waiting for their characters to come back onstage.
This brings me to the accents. Ann Turiano, as the Original Pronunciation Director, guides the leads to such stunning levels of proficiency that I forgot they were speaking in accents at all. However, some of the supporting characters seemed to still struggle with it. But, even taking that into consideration this production had the best execution out of any OP production I’ve seen from BSF before. (B)
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Helmed by Chris Cotterman, this is one of the best productions from Baltimore Shakespeare Factory that I have seen with an outstanding performance from Terrence Fleming. So run, don’t walk to see this production before it closes.