You may know more lines from William Shakespeare's Hamlet off the top of your head than you think you even do; it's just that great packed with excellent lines and modern society is just that full of people who want to sound smart at work meetings. It's a magnificent play of the bard's but also a dark one. Still, what a perfect one for the North Coast Repertory Theatre to lead us at least partway out of the dark.
Hamlet, after all, was what NCRT had up and ready to go in March of last year as part of its regular season. When shelter in place came down, it got the deep-six, like all live entertainment, from the onrush of COVID-19 ("Not to Be," March 26, 2020). In what feels like a gesture of unflappability, it's where NCRT has picked up again after 16 months. How could it not be? It's not a production on which you just throw in the towel. So to see it staged is to see a triumph — all hail to them.
And it was worth the wait — and the proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours required at the door. This production is basically an all-star cast of local theater talent. And under the fine direction of David Hamilton (NCRT's Tartuffe, Richard III, The Tempest) roars back to the stage.
Early in the first act of the play, the ghost of Hamlet's father (Abraham Greene) appears to him on the ramparts of the Danish royal castle Elsinore, having already revealed himself to a pair of sentries and to Horatio (Alexandra Blouin), Hamlet's friend and confidant. Hamlet (Jordan Keith Dobbins), still mourning his father's death and chaffing under the leadership of his uncle, King Claudius (Erik Rez), is told by his father's ghost that Claudius murdered him. Cladius has also hastily remarried the king's widow, Queen Gertrude (Andrea Zvaleko), about a move over which Hamlet still fumes. Urged by his father's ghost, Hamlet sets out on a course of revenge to kill Claudius.
This plot will involve Hamlet feigning a slow descent into madness, confiding only in Horatio. What follows is a densely plotted game of royal treachery and deception, with some of the prince's actions — such as his shunning of the affections of young Ophelia (Caroline McFarland) — even unclear to the audience at times. This all builds up slowly to a play within the play to smoke out the villain, revelation and violence
The young Danish prince is a dream role but a daunting one that works in a lot of pitches, including a put-on of madness. Staggering is the amount of dialogue alone, both with many other actors and in soliloquies to the audience over the course of well over two hours. Jordan Keith Dobbins, last seen onstage at NCRT as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, and before that in Cabaret, more than rises to the occasion here in an excellent, wide-ranging turn.
Among the pageant of so many other cast members masterfully directed by Hamilton, several are outstanding. Local theater whirlwind Blouin is a triumph as Horatio, right down to the play's final line. As Queen Gertrude, Zvaleko (Pippin) shines in a very challenging role, and Craig Benson brings great range and some comic flair to Polonius, counselor to King Claudius. In smaller roles, Shakespearean vet McFarland brings some heartbreaking deftness to Ophelia, and Guildenstern is just the sort of the role Morgan Cox (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) was born to play.
Many aspects of Hamlet, including but not limited to the climactic scene, require careful choreography and McFarland pulled double duty to make that exceptional as well. Calder Johnson and Gabriel Groom designed a great sound architecture of moody musical cues, and the period costuming done by Kelsey Hamilton and Megan Hughes is top-notch as well.
David Jervis (he/him) is an Arcata-based freelance writer and editor.