When we first see Scott Parkinson's Hamlet, he looks exactly like a Hamlet is expected to look. Leaning against an upstage wall, dressed all in black, his backlit face obscured by moody shadows, he's the very picture of the melancholy Dane. There's even an homage to Laurence Olivier's 1948 film performance suggested by the glow of his Nordic-blond hair.
But let him come closer and everything changes. The romantic prince goes poof, replaced by a spindly short guy whose drapey outfit makes him seem to be dragging a tail behind him. His features are too big for his face and the blond hair takes on a yellowish tinge in bright light. Put a hump on him and he could be a kind of hipster Richard III—Andy Warhol at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
The divergence from type becomes still more obvious when Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father, murdered King Hamlet. Larry Yando is all square-jawed, wire-haired fierceness in the role, as if the dead monarch's soul had transmigrated into a German shepherd trained for combat duty. Next to him, Parkinson comes across as the mewling runt of the litter. I found myself feeling bad for the agitated old spirit, having to pin his hopes for eternal rest on such a misfit of a son.
And there's one thing more: Parkinson's Hamlet is almost certainly gay. You can sense it in his manner—an ironic, urban way with a line; an unmanly tendency to fold up into himself like Katharine Hepburn on a cold day. But it's also present in the way his hand lingers on the face of his friend Horatio, the taste of former intimacies accompanying the complaint of another friend, Rosencrantz—"My lord, you once did love me."
The notion of a homo Hamlet isn't new, but it's definitely a minority position. Director Michael Halberstam demonstrates that it makes absolute—even revelatory—sense in his fascinating, if not entirely successful staging of Hamlet for Writers' Theatre.
Redefining Hamlet's sexual preference does more than provide a titillating subtext for his interactions with pals. It also does more than explain the weird, trashy, ultimately shattering way he treats his sometime girlfriend, Ophelia. It offers a solution to the fairly huge problem of Hamlet's preoccupation with death.
I mean, here's a young man whose primary dilemma is how to make good on his promise to vindicate his wronged father—a promise that carries implications for the whole famously rotten state of Denmark. Yet his most important speeches aren't about revenge or tactics or restoring the lawful royal succession (one of the strangest things about Hamlet is how little time he spends considering the fact that he's supposed to be king). They're about death. Specifically, his longing for it. "Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt." "You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal—except my life." "To be or not to be," for God's sake, and loads more. What's going on inside this prince of Denmark that makes him wish himself dead on a regular basis, when he should be busy killing the usurping King Claudius? Halberstam's production opens up the possibility that his morbidity equates with sexual shame. Like, say, Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge two years ago, after his assignation with another man was streamed over the Internet via webcam, this Hamlet may want to die because he can't reconcile his desires with his public persona. Who, after all, could find the courage to come out to the peremptory king of the Danes, especially after he's appeared to you as an angry ghost?
The gay conceit helps account for Hamlet's notorious logorrhea, too. He may talk so much to avoid discussing the topic that dare not speak its name.
Parkinson makes a superb vehicle for Halberstam's approach. His 21st-century physicality brings humor, liveliness, and accessibility to the show even as it gives us insight into Hamlet. And he's surrounded by some of Chicago's best in Shannon Cochran as Queen Gertrude, Ross Lehman as Polonius, and the aforementioned Yando, who plays the leader of the traveling theater troupe and the grave digger as well the king's ghost. Yando has pulled out so many extraordinary performances over the last couple years that it might be useful to have an app capable of tracking his professional whereabouts at any given moment.
Collette Pollard's set is another star of the show, establishing a world of stone to contain the tragedy and placing a single, brilliantly resonant non sequitur at its center: what appears to be a scorch mark on the back wall, about the size of a human being.
I'm of two minds about Michael Canavan's Claudius. On the one hand, he looks like a Kenilworth lawyer in the role, which makes for some amusing associations. On the other, he's as wooden as a Kenilworth lawyer, offering no sense of the intriguer who'd murder his brother for a crown. But the real problem is Liesel Matthews, who leaves a big, complaisant hole where Ophelia should be. Her implausible mad scene puts a long lull in an otherwise vivid Hamlet.