Review: ‘Hamlet’ at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale |

Review: ‘Hamlet’ at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale

David Pulliam as Hamlet and Mike Monroney as Claudius in Thunder River Theatre's "Hamlet."
Aspen Times file |

If You Go …

What: “Hamlet,” presented by Thunder River Theatre

Where: Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale

When: Through March 14; Fri/Sat, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays 2 p.m.

Cost: $12/students; $14/20 and 30-somethings; $20/adults

Tickets and more info:

In the opening moments of Thunder River Theater’s “Hamlet,” the voice of the ghost (Kim Nuzzo) speaks over a loudspeaker, announcing, “So shall you hear of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause…”

The cast then emerges from a trapdoor onstage, all in disturbing, white masks.

The dramatic, spooky opening announces that this is a ghost story. And this abridged, two-hour version of Shakespeare’s classic delivers a good one. But the words of the ghost here — spoken in Shakespeare’s version by Horatio (Nick Garay) at the end of the play — also announces this is a production that’s going to take some risks with its timeless material.

Most prominent among Thunder River’s dramatic choices is its use of those creepy masks the cast wears as it enters. For the rest of the action, the actors wear them spun around on the back of their heads, hinting not so subtly at the double-dealing in the court of Denmark. They selectively become props, tools of self-reflection and for underlining a character’s claims about himself. When Hamlet (David Pulliam) confronts Ophelia (Sophie Sakson) in the “to a nunnery” scene, an irate Hamlet pulls off his mask and shoves it in Ophelia’s face like a weapon as he straddles her. He does the same, though more gently, as he confronts Gertrude (Valerie Haugen). When Claudius (Mike Monroney), alone on stage, admits to killing the king, he pulls his mask off and literally confronts it during his “confront the visage of offense” speech. As characters die, their masks go back on their faces.

In an otherwise minimalist production, performed on a simple stage of black velour, the mask theme works. They’re used to emphasize the meanings of the words and the intentions of the characters in the play, not as a gaudy distraction.

Pulliam’s Hamlet is a protean shapeshifter, aggressive with his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (J.D. Miller and Brendan Cochran) as he suspects they’re betraying him, playful and condescending with Polonious (Richard Lyon) as he tries to divine what Hamlet’s up to, contemplative as he holds the jester’s skull in the graveyard. An intense stage presence, Pulliam handles Hamlet’s soliloquies absorbingly. He performs them as though he’s not reciting poetry — though, of course, he is — but as if he’s speaking from the tormented prince’s emotional core.

The first soliloquy, though, he doesn’t speak — it’s played on a recording, ostensibly to show Hamlet’s in his head. This was one of a few staging choices I had minor qualms with in this production. A belabored, slow-motion sequence in the final duel between Laertes (Corey Simpson) and Hamlet also left me scratching my head.

Much of the sold-out crowd on opening night last Friday responded with a shocked, murmured laughter when the countless phrases first coined in “Hamlet” were spoken (“There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark,” “I must be cruel only to be kind,” “The lady protests too much, methinks,” “To thine own self be true,” etc.). In any production of Shakespeare, it’s extraordinary to find how many of our idioms and how much of the way we talk about human nature originated with his work. Watching this cast in this production of “Hamlet,” thankfully, such familiar words were invested with meaning from their scenes and situations — they seemed to actually come from the characters, not from a quotation book.

Whether you read “Hamlet” (or just the “Hamlet” Cliffs Notes) in high school or you’re a Shakespearean connoisseur, this thoughtful production of “Hamlet” is well worth your time and is a crowning achievement for Thunder River in its 20th-anniversary season.

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