A sign outside UMKC's Studio 116 warns that the urgent, intimate Hamlet inside "contains adult themes and may cause motion sickness." This isn't a joke. Just a couple of minutes in, after a prologue of admirable creepiness, a kah-chunk jolts through the four risers of audience seating, and cast members wheel us around the performance space, setting us up in new vantage points for the next scene.
Again and again this happens. Once we're shuffled, a cast member announces what act and scene we're about to see, and then there's another kah-chunk. (This began to suggest Law & Order to me sometime after intermission.) Director Kyle Hatley's production combines existential terror with an amusement-park ride — isn't that exactly what modern life is? But this trickery serves a strong dramatic purpose. As his madness, real or feigned, spurs Hamlet to force away everyone near to him, we are drawn literally nearer. Before the brutal scene in which he tells Ophelia "I did love you once," the risers tighten around Todd Lanker and Natalie Liccardello, talented UMKC graduate students who manage raw and nervy work in these challenging roles.
The effect is like a cinematic close-up. We see sweat and pores; we track each fresh assault in Lanker's wry smile and Liccardello's flinches. We see how this Hamlet is surprised at his ability to wound and how he relishes it.
Then, just when a scene seems unbearable, we get kah-chunked and we knot in closer still. I felt like I was a noose around a character's neck.
Except for the play within a play, where the murderous king's court is afforded the most traditional of sight lines, Hatley stages this Hamlet as if no proscenium ever existed. This approach, along with the spareness of the production, forces our attention entirely upon the actors. They rally beneath it, which results in something spectacular: The events in a Shakespearean play feel not like excuses to get to the famous bits but like trials these characters are actually enduring. Lines that in most productions are declaimed to the heavens are here spoken or whispered. The famous soliloquies, which by now we anticipate like big numbers in a familiar musical, come from Lanker as though he's working through some things out loud. His treatment of "That this too solid flesh should melt" is handled beautifully: Offhand instead of self-important, it's the instant when his aimless, ironic Hamlet realizes that he has to do something besides contemplate how romantic suicide might be.
Zachary Andrews and Katie Gilchrist bring a welcome glamor to Claudius and Gertrude. I especially liked Andrews' hungover elegance in his late scenes with Laertes (Tyler Horn.) As ghost and gravedigger, Logan Ernstthal lends invaluable support; Matt Rapport's original music, played live, rises from and complements the individual moments as naturally as weather does to a day.
Hatley's low-budget Hamlet offers little pageantry but much feeling. If that trade-off appeals to you, show up early — there are only 32 seats.
Another bracing and intelligent play is also up through this weekend. Art Suskin's new production company, The Theatre Gym, is staging the regional premiere of The Busy World Is Hushed, Keith Bunin's 2006 Broadway drama, at St. Mary's Episcopal Church downtown. Because the script demands stained-glass windows and thoughtfully considers faith, family and a forgotten Gospel, a sacred setting is suitable. Because that script also examines Christianity's treatment of homosexuality, a sacred Episcopalian setting is even more so.
A makeshift stage is set up in the rear of the church's nave. The actors Vi Tran and Matthew Griggs do well in their speeches, but their reactions and interjections often sound unnatural, more like memorized lines than human responses. It's distracting, but not so much so that I'd warn away anyone who finds the source material fascinating, as I do. Even if it doesn't always convince, the show engages and even moves.
The excellent Kathy Kane stars as Hannah, a widowed Episcopalian minister and academic. Hannah dotes a little too much on her grown-up son, Thomas. As his name implies, he has his doubts, about both faith and Hannah. In the opening scene, Hannah hires Brandt, an enthusiastic grad student, to ghostwrite her book about a recently unearthed Gospel, one that might predate the ones that made it into the big book. Over the strong first act, an attraction develops between the boys. Tran and Griggs handle it well; the air between them tickles. Soon, in some surprising ways, the mother is embroiled in this with them.
Kane is persuasive and affecting as a minister who understands how haphazard the compilation of the Bible actually was but still finds much to believe. The minister's son suspects that her belief is some kind of act, and in the long, less satisfying second act, he demands that she choose between her belief in God and her love for him — a demand that seems willed by the playwright rather than the character. Kane and Griggs get believably worked up, but the script lets them down. Still, the lighter, human touch of the first act returns in a brief, powerful epilogue. It sent me into the night with my soul stirred and my mind pleasantly reeling — just the thing I've always wished that church could do for me.
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