Given that Riverside Theatre in the Park isn’t in fact in the park, you may be weighing whether to go or not to go. That may be your question.
Here’s my answer: The current production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” performed in the West High School auditorium, is worth your time, whether you know the play well or are experiencing it for the first time. Under the direction of Kristin Horton, the cast performs a largely unadorned version of this most famous of plays, highlighting the Bard’s language and the story’s emotional resonance.
The story in brief: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is urged by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder. Claudius has killed the king, hastily married his widow, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and assumed the throne. Hamlet, wracked with grief, is incensed at this outrage, but schemes and hesitates rather than taking direct action. This path leads to tragedy for all concerned.
Christopher Peltier turns in a textured performance in the title role, capturing the full range of Hamlet’s emotions as he rages and sulks and feigns (or perhaps doesn’t feign) madness. He delivers the “To be or not to be” soliloquy—some of the most famous lines in all of literature—in a manner in keeping with the rest of his performance, avoiding the trap of a sort of “greatest hits” approach that can mar the speech. Indeed, Pelitier’s Hamlet is a complex individual, and we can feel his suffering as he struggle to do right in an untenable situation.
Tim Budd is excellent as Claudius, particularly late in the play as he struggles with his guilt and considers whether there is a path to redemption. Corliss Preston portrays Gertrude and shares a powerful scene with Peltier as Hamlet confronts her with her disloyalty to his father. As Ophelia, a young woman Hamlet cruelly spurns, Eliza Stoughton travels from a love struck but dutiful daughter to a grief stricken madwoman, delivering some of the play’s most haunting moments. Jim Van Valen is quite funny as Ophelia’s father, Polonius, and his ability to capture the humor of his character deepens the tragedy that befalls the meddling man.
Horton cast Ron Clark in three roles: Hamlet’s dead father, the leading player in an acting troupe Hamlet employees to determine Claudius’ guilt, and a humorous, if philosophical, gravedigger. A thread runs through these characters, and Clark provides a powerful, silent moment when his gravedigger looks back over his shoulder at Hamlet just before everything finally unravels.
Shelly A. Ford’s scenic design is as barebones as imaginable and David Thayer’s lighting is subtle but effective. Lindsay W. Davis’ costumes are lush and ornate in contrast to the spare set, suggesting that outward trappings and inner truths do not always align. One might quibble with Brianna Atwood’s decision to amplify the ghost’s voice, but otherwise the sound design is successful. Jason Tipsword’s fight choreography for the final contest between Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother, Laertes—passionately portrayed by Fred Geyer—is well conceived and well executed.
“Hamlet” may well be a tragedy of the first order, but this production will leave you feeling glad that you traveled to the Royal Castle Elsinore to see the tale unfold.