Shakespeare’s great tragedy earns an unexpected share of laughs in Michael Halberstam’s wry, gorgeously designed production at Writers’ Theatre. The early acts of Halberstam’s Hamlet, while meticulously setting up the catastrophic events to come, provide a surprising amount of comedy, from Ross Lehman’s pompous Polonius to the entrance of the melancholy Dane’s school chums Rosencrantz (Julian Parker) and Guildenstern (Billy Fenderson), who flip a coin on their first appearance (a sly reference to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which Halberstam directed on this stage three seasons ago); David Hyman’s lush costumes have a visual wit all their own.
The chortles on hand help upend our expectations of a play some of us may think we exhausted in high-school English class; these lighter moments prick up our ears to listen anew to Shakespeare’s masterful character and plotting, rather than hearing the words as a familiar greatest-hits collection.
The all-star cast’s interpretations are refreshing in their own ways. Michael Canavan’s Claudius is less craven than sorrowful about his betrayal of his brother, seemingly resigned to his eventual downfall even as he enjoys the crown. Shannon Cochran, in turn, is an unusually sympathetic Gertrude, appearing to fool herself about her new husband’s actions. Scott Parkinson’s sparky, sinewy Hamlet is a marvel, his impinging madness possibly equal parts feigned and fact, a kind of self-fulfilling fortune. Larry Yando and Timothy Edward Kane bring gravitas to the Ghost and Laertes, respectively. Only Liesel Matthews’s Ophelia falls short; though her performance would be solid in a lesser production, it feels halting and recitative amid her stellar cohorts.