Over the course of the five acts of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the eponymous Prince of Denmark is betrayed, attacked by pirates and poisoned. Yet in Clever Enough's new spin on the play, the character confronts an even more daunting trial—being upstaged by both his nemesis and his love interest.
And it works out well for the audience. Directed by Valerie Asbell, Clever Enough's founder and artistic director, this Hamlet's supporting cast is the star attraction. By excavating new layers of wit and feeling from the souls of familiar characters, the production transcends some static moments and emerges as a worthy adaptation of one of the Bard's most seductively ambiguous plays.
Set in the "fictional present," Asbell's Hamlet is rife with contemporary costumes and hairstyles. Hamlet broods in a dark dress shirt, Queen Gertrude (Stephanie Crowley) rocks a red bob, and King Claudius (Kenneth Dembo) looks resplendent in a crimson vest that reminds you of the blood spilled when he slew Hamlet's father, setting the stage for his marriage to Gertrude and ascension to the throne.
The multifaceted Hamlet (Riley Parham) is a cast of characters unto himself. His quest to kill Claudius on the orders of an apparition claiming to be his father (Sean Christopher Franson) may be the main event, but Parham embraces the inner chaos. By playing Hamlet's contradictory choices—particularly his behavior toward Ophelia (Asbell), which ranges from adoring to abusive—as instinctive decisions rather than pieces of a carefully wrought persona, he embodies the play's suggestion that it can be difficult to tell where method leaves off and madness begins.
If Parham's Hamlet is fascinatingly impenetrable, Dembo's Claudius is a pleasure to know. When he addresses his subjects, he gleefully enunciates each word, sounding hilariously like a condescending teacher humoring a room full of unruly preschoolers. This Claudius is so ebullient he actually applauds when Hamlet swears to obey Gertrude, making it all the more unnerving when he is finally humbled by the extremity of his crimes.
Ophelia, meanwhile, is humbled more excruciatingly than any other character in the play. While her descent into insanity after Hamlet murders her father, Polonius (Terry Lybecker), is easy to write off as a side story in a grand tale of manly egos clashing, Asbell rehabilitates the character one nuance at a time. Her mastery manifests both in delicate details, including the way Ophelia cheekily mouths her father's words behind his back, and spurts of electric wrath, like when she goes from kissing Claudius to punching him in the crotch.
Considering that Hamlet is Clever Enough's second production, it isn't shocking that there are times when the company's youth shows. A wordless encounter between Ophelia and Fortinbras (Noah Jaeger), Denmark's future ruler, offers more confusion than complexity and there are times when the staging cries out for bolder imagery. Hamlet may be alluringly intimate, but it is also an epic narrative of fateful conquests and fearsome emotions. More dramatic choices in terms of lighting, music and scenery would have enlivened the production and edged it closer to the grandeur found on the page.
As frustrating as the play's occasional tepidness can be, it never proves fatal. Hamlet is many things—a revenge saga, a tortured romance, a conspiracy thriller. Contrary to the title, it is also a vast and engrossing ensemble drama. Asbell understands that and makes sure audiences leave the theater not just remembering Hamlet musing about whether he should be or not be. You also recall the eerie keen of Ophelia's singing and the foul beat of Claudius' clapping, which echoes long after the final bows.
SEE IT: Hamlet plays at the Chapel Theater, 4017 SE Harrison St., Milwaukie, cleverenough.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 pm Saturday, 1:30 pm Sunday, through Sept. 8. $15.