Shakespeare Fest’s “Hamlet” Showcases Bravura Performance by Nathan Darrow

Director Sidonie Garrett, executive artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, delivers perhaps the finest production in the festival’s history with an exceptional rendering of “Hamlet.”

The production clocks in at three hours — it would have been longer if not for Garrett’s smart editing — but the drama is so engrossing, the cast so committed, that the show seems to fly by.

Anchoring the production is Nathan Darrow, a gifted actor formerly based in Kansas City, who inhabits the Melancholy Dane with extraordinary emotional depth and inventiveness.

Darrow, who grew up in Kansas City, now works in high-end television (“House of Cards,” “Billions,” the new HBO movie “The Wizard of Lies”). His success is hardly surprising to anyone who has seen his work on local stages.

The Sunday performance in Southmoreland Park was encumbered by all the normal hazards of outdoor theater — the ambient sounds of traffic and sirens drifting into the park and an early curtain that required viewers to watch the first 90 minutes of the show in daylight and twilight.

But none of that mattered. Because Darrow’s unique approach to the title role refreshes the material. There were moments — quite a few of them, actually — when I felt as if I was seeing the play for the first time. Darrow and his fellow actors continually opened windows and doors that brought remarkable clarity to the play.

On its most basic level, “Hamlet” is a revenge tragedy —Hamlet’s father has been murdered by his uncle, who has taken both the crown and the late kings’s widow (Hamlet’s mother) as his wife. Hamlet feigns madness while plotting his revenge.

But the play is much more than that. It meditates on mortality, the unstoppable flow of time and the sacrifice of ethics in the pursuit of political power. Much of this is reflected in Hamlet’s famous soul-searching soliloquies. We tend to think of these speeches as sacrosanct, to be performed like an aria in an opera, But Darrow eschews tradition and brings a new approach to each of them.

His performance is continually unique and insightful. And Garrett seems committed to the notion that the soliloquies should not slow the play’s dramatic drive. This show moves with accelerating intensity.

But Darrow doesn’t do it alone. He is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast. Bruce Roach, as Claudius, delivers a nuanced reading as the guilt-plagued villain of the piece. Jan Rogge brings depth and subtlety to the role of Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.

Robert Gibby Brand is exceptional as Polonious, the garrulous royal councilor. Polonious is one of Shakespeare’s best comic roles and Brand immerses himself in it.

Hillary Clemens, as Ophelia (Polonius’s daughter), commands attention with a vivid performance that is specific and deeply felt. We still don’t really know why Ophelia goes mad, but Clemens negotiates her transformation with great clarity.

Matt Schwader brings emotional fire to Laertes, Ophelia’s revenge-minded brother. Darren Kennedy and Collin Verbeck play the doomed courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for laughs without over-doing it. Matt Rapport has a nice scene as the Gravedigger. Mark Robbins draws attention as the Player King. Jake Walker brings wide-eyed sincerity to Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend. John Rensenhouse makes a strong impression as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. And Wyatt McCall inhabits the foppish courtier Osric beautifully.

Mary Traylor’s colorful costumes are show unto themselves and Ward Everhart’s lighting is effective (once the sun goes down.)

The program doesn’t credit a fight choreographer, but the climactic fencing bout between Hamlet and Laertes is both exciting and convincing. It requires some of the most complicated choreography of any sequence in Shakespeare.

This show seems fitting to our own chaotic era. It depicts a small, self-contained world of elites that comes apart like an exploding planet as a series of deaths piles trauma after trauma on the surviving characters. An illegitimate ruler has claimed the throne. And when we hear Justin Barron as Marcellus utter the famous line, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” we inevitably think of our own dysfunctional politics.

“Hamlet” runs through July 2 at Southmoreland Park at Oak Street and Cleaver II Blvd, just west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The festival is free although reserved seating is available. Donations will be requested. Go to www.kcshakes.org or call 816-531-7728. 

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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