SOUTH SALT LAKE — For many people, watching Shakespeare is like eating their vegetables: it’s something that they should do regularly, but it’s not a pleasant experience for them. Like parents frantically searching for a way to get their kids to eat broccoli, Shakespeare fans can have difficulty finding the right show to introduce the Bard to their children. The Utah Children’s Theatre’s production of Hamlet, however, is ideal for showing families and friends that watching Shakespeare isn’t just good for them—it can be a genuinely enjoyable and fun.
As the title character, Spencer Hohl is a swashbuckling hero who excels in every scene. The masculinity that Spencer Hohl gave to his character made the frequent sword fighting scenes and Hamlet’s eagerness to exact his revenge believable. Additionally, Spencer Hohl has mastered Shakespeare’s language so well that his lines seem natural, not archaic. Spencer Hohl also resisted the temptation to create a mopey Hamlet, and his strongest moments were when he was interacting with Gertrude, which showed the emotional mother-son relationship, yet also brimmed with tension over her decision to marry Claudius. The relationship between Hamlet and Horatio (played by Cameron Ballard) seemed more forced, but by the time Hamlet was dying in Horatio’s arms, all was forgiven as the actors put the power of the play’s final scene on full display.
Brooke Wilkins was perfectly cast as Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Her regal bearing and the dignity that she gave to her scenes made her completely convincing as the queen of Denmark. The play’s Claudius (Matthew Windham), however, lacked the emotional range that Wilkins and other castmates gave their characters. I never felt that Windham was the malevolent force that Hamlet needs so that Elsinore castle fills with intrigue and danger. It also seemed like Windham didn’t have much of an emotional connection with Wilkins, and he lacked the poise and authority needed in someone who just usurped the throne through murder.
Another striking performance came from Bryson Dumas as Polonius, who injected much more humor into the character than usual. Dumas also seemed authentically protective of his daughter, Ophelia, which added a sensitive undercurrent to his scenes.
As fine as these actors were, their director, Joanne M. Parker was able to harness their talents and create a memorable production. Parker created many beautiful stage pictures, with my favorites including an entrancing funeral in Act V and when Hamlet pledges his love to Ophelia early in the play. Parker also ensured that the play was infused with passion, which made the swordfights and the murderous schemes seem like a natural outgrowth of these characters’ personalities and their environment.
The Renaissance costumes (designed by Karissa Nelson, Cathy Maurer, and Christina Wilson) were the most visually compelling aspect of Hamlet. The costumers ensured that Gertrude always wore exquisitely beautiful dresses and were an excellent contribution to the majestic bearing that Wilkins developed for the character. I also adored the tunics that the men wore, especially Hamlet’s “inky cloak” and Horatio’s leathery tunic. But really, every actor was dressed wonderfully, and no costume piece seemed cheap, out of place, or anachronistic.
Thomas Hohl‘s lighting was superb in the play-within-the-play, with the orange footlights creating a heightened look for the scene. I also enjoyed the warm lighting when Polonius attempts to comfort Hamlet early in the play, which contributed to the feeling that the other inhabitants in the castle were concerned for Hamlet’s well being. However, the ghost’s second scene and the church scene were so dark that it was extremely difficult to see the actors who were speaking.
Just like their current production of As You Like It, the Utah Children’s Theatre has cut Hamlet (Shakespeare’s longest play) down to a little less than 90 minutes (including intermission). The result is a lean show that still retains the best known lines from Shakespeare’s script. To enhance clarity Parker has also added material in the first few minutes to provide backstory and moved the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy to the start of the play. An extreme Shakespeare purist will disagree with these choices, but given the intended audience, these alterations are appropriate. The result is a production that moves briskly without skipping any important plot points or famous scenes.
In the end, it would be hard to improve upon this production of Hamlet. The negative aspects I’ve mentioned in this review are fleeting, and every scene emphasizes the genius of Shakespeare’s greatest play. So, coax your children or your friends to give Shakespeare a try. If Hamlet is their first taste, then they may serve themselves a steady diet of Shakespeare before long, because this production isn’t just good for you—it’s very good.