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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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American Players Theatre shows off Hamlet's wit as well as its wisdom
This is heady, dark stuff.
Credit:Carissa Dixon

A 30-minute rain delay on Saturday couldn't dampen the Dane at American Players Theatre's opening performance of Hamlet (through Oct. 4). Huddling under my poncho in a freezing downpour seemed the perfect way to watch Shakespeare's most well-known and oft-quoted tragedy. That is, until the people behind me started singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" at the top of their lungs.

The production began moody and dense enough, with Denmark's guards stalking ghosts in the pre-curtain gloaming. The brown stage echoed the soldiers' costumes, and with the dark trees hovering above, I waited anxiously for the text to unfold in all its rapturous, existential glory.

If you're familiar with Hamlet, you'll know the title character, a young prince, is noted for his tortured indecision, which is immortalized his "To be or not to be?" speech. His father has died suddenly, and his "grieving" mother has married his uncle before his father's body is even cold in the grave. This alone is enough to depress Hamlet, but matters worsen when he's visited by his father's ghost, who tells Hamlet that his death was no accident. He was poisoned by his own brother, who coveted both the crown and the queen.

Shakespeare elevates what could be mere personal tragedy or political intrigue into a philosophical introspection about the nature of life and death itself. In one of the play's final scenes, Hamlet goes to a graveyard, where, one by one, he reviews the rotted bones of the dead. He comes upon the skull of his childhood companion, the court jester, Yorick. With his famed cry, "Alas, Poor Yorick!" he laments the happy man who once bounced him on his knee but has now disintegrated into nothingness.

This is heady, dark stuff. While the other characters constantly refer to him as mad, Hamlet is actually grappling with deep despair. Not just because of his father's murder but because of what inevitably befalls all life. Whether it's now or later, Hamlet realizes, annihilation awaits.

Rather than dwelling on the blacker, existential elements, APT's production plays to broader comedy as well. On opening night, the queen (Deborah Staples) could barely keep her hands off her new husband (Claudius, played by Jim DeVita), and Matt Schwader's Hamlet, while appropriately aged for the part, occasionally framed his "madness" as a private joke. At times, I wondered if I was watching Much Ado About Nothing instead of a Shakespearean tragedy. But Schwader's big speeches were still moving, and certain actors, such as David Daniel, who plays the king's adviser, Polonius, handled the swings in tone without losing the essentials of their characters.

Because of the rain, the first act didn't end until 10:30 p.m., and some of the audience left early. In case you don't make it all the way to the end, I'll tell you that Hamlet culminates in a body count similar to that of a Bruce Willis film. But there are few pleasures quite like watching Shakespeare outdoors, so the weather, the late hour and the singing audience be damned, I'd still suggest seeing Hamlet before it's gone.

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