Suffering the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune

In the Theater - February 2018

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The past 18 months haven’t been easy. Feeling anxious? Stressed? Uncertain? It’s nothing new. Whether producing “Hamlet” from the 17th century or the World War II-era “The Skin of Our Teeth,” local theaters prove that contending with eroding social norms, crumbling political institutions, and even unsettling forces of nature is a time-honored tradition.

While it’s “Skin” that’s billed as an absurdist tragicomedy, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Hamlet” fully embraces the absurdity and humor in a dark tale of treachery and revenge. The story is familiar: Hamlet returns from school to learn that his father has died, his mother has married his uncle, and his uncle has made himself king. That’s bad enough, but then the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him to avenge his death. Now there’s a dilemma.

As the drama unfolds, at first one might cringe after bursting into laughter when the ghost appears on a surveillance screen or when Hamlet shrugs off his accidental murder of the gentle Polonius. These developments normally meet with rapt silence. But director Michael Kahn invites us to confront these supernatural and implausible plot twists with our 21st century sensibilities, without ever diminishing the poignancy of Hamlet’s plight or undermining the play’s themes of love, betrayal, and corruption.

For once a production that introduces modern dress, video screens, and cell phones goes beyond simply using these devices to draw parallels between Shakespeare’s time and ours. The characters and their behaviors feel entirely current, and the presence of surveillance cameras and security guards spotlight a stark reality: Hamlet’s uncle has executed a coup and is ruthlessly tightening his grip on power.

It’s a well-worn cliché that “Hamlet” allows infinite interpretation, and nowhere more than at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. As Tom Hulce told The Washington Post while preparing for Kahn’s first production of the play in 1992, the character of Hamlet “does not exist”; he is the character of the actor who’s playing him. Hulce’s Hamlet was agitated, alienated, and detached, underscoring the “generation gap” in the play. Kahn’s 2007 rendition featured Jeffrey Carlson, who was visibly wounded, distraught, and even suicidal in a production that illuminated powerful family bonds. And Wallace Acton’s Hamlet, under the direction of Gale Edwards in 2006, was brilliant and pensive; the play’s language has never sounded more beautiful.

Malinda Kathleen Reese, Steven Carpenter, Lolita Marie, and Dallas Tolentino in “The Skin of Our Teeth”

Today, this thoroughly modern production works because Michael Urie has created a thoroughly modern Hamlet. He’s the picture of the smartest, funniest, most popular kid in the class. He’s emotional but not unhinged; pensive but not brooding; a young man of boundless charm and whit gripped by grief for his father’s murder, heartbreak over his mother’s frailty, and fury at his uncle’s crimes. He’s a thinker who clearly would have made a fine king if his uncle hadn’t stolen the crown.

In an astonishing performance, Urie speaks Shakespeare’s most famous, time-honored lines as if they’re being uttered for the very first time. It’s easy to see why Michael Kahn, his former instructor at The Julliard School, was eager to direct his third Hamlet if Urie would play the role. “I have been struck by the depth and emotional intelligence of his acting, the serious side alongside the playful, physical, comedic side,” Kahn has said. “You need all of those tools to play Hamlet, and Michael has them.”

This production belongs to Urie, best known for his roles in TV’s “Ugly Betty” and last season’s production of “Buyer and Cellar.” The play has other high points, of course. Oyin Oladejo admirably portrays Ophelia’s descent into madness, Robert Joy as Polonius is completely endearing in cautioning his son to “neither a lender nor a borrower be,” and Keith Baxter provides a delightful and touching turn as a gravedigger who blithely reflects on life and madness as he tosses bones from the dirt.

But even these memorable performances pale in Urie’s brilliant glow; you miss him whenever he leaves the stage. His exuberance makes Hamlet’s tragic end, dictated by inscrutable forces of nature and politics, sting all the more.

Constellation’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” offers a more optimistic take on resilience in the face of calamity, winning a Pulitzer Prize at a time when the United States stood at the brink of World War II. Traversing eons, the play chronicles the endurance of the Antrobus family of suburban New Jersey as they repeatedly bounce back from the ravages of the Ice Age, a great flood, and a seven-year war.

This two and a half-hour marathon premiered on Broadway in 1942, when audiences may have had more tolerance for lengthy, absurdist fare with an exhausting array of plot twists and theatrical devices. Beyond its fantastic changes of scene and compression of centuries, the play intermittently morphs characters into not only other characters but also the actors who play them, at which point they directly address the audience. By design, they remain symbols instead of fully formed characters that can achieve an emotional connection. 

Director Mary Hall Surface gamely takes on this challenging work, embracing its offbeat humor and themes while expertly maneuvering more than a dozen actors (including a scene-stealing life-sized dinosaur and woolly mammoth outfitted by puppet designer Matthew Aldwin McGeeas) around the Source Theatre’s tiny stage. And scenic designer A.J. Guban deserves accolades for creating a set that converts an arts-and-crafts living room into a boardwalk on the beach before the eyes of an awestruck audience. (During intermission, witnesses burst into appreciative applause when the transformation was complete.) 

An odyssey like this demands a guide, and as Sabina, Tonya Beckman is wily and wise. She opens and closes the show, in between lending sage commentary like this: “My advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but to enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.” Sabina by turns serves and seduces George Antrobus, inventor of the wheel, creator of the alphabet, and president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals. Portrayed with aloof dignity by Steven Carpenter, George is the patriarch of two children. Dallas Tolentino brings surprising passion to the role of the somewhat dimwitted and occasionally murderous son, Henry, while Malinda Kathleen Reese is agreeably sweet and sly as the daughter, Gladys, who teeters on the cusp of womanhood.

As these characters grapple with supernatural and manmade disasters, it’s George’s dutiful wife, Maggie, who understands not just how but also why they all will survive. When George pronounces that he is leaving her for Sabina, Maggie, portrayed with gravitas by Lolita Marie, simply won’t have it. “I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you,” she says. “I married you because you gave me a promise. … Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them — it was that promise.”

Thus Wilder asserts: Even when humans survive only by the skin of our teeth, where there is a promise, there is hope. If only Hamlet had known.

The Shakespeare Theatre presents “Hamlet” at the Harman Center for the Arts through March 4. Constellation’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” is at the Source through Feb. 11.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.