I'll warn you right now: You may get a little bored during the second act of "Hamlet," the last offering in this summer's Richmond Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall. But don't let this lull discourage you, because the final 15 minutes of this show make for a truly forceful finale, both monumentally tragic and dramatically satisfying. Thanks to a vigorous and confident portrayal of the melancholy Dane by Foster Solomon, this production does superb service to one of the Bard's most thoughtful works.
Director Jack Parrish doesn't take "Hamlet" in any bold new places with this production. Still, he can't really be faulted for the brief lapse in dramatic tension in the second act. In the plotting of the play, Shakespeare noodled around a bit while placing the pieces of the final conflict together. He made room for a disjointed scene showing Ophelia (Sarah Wiggin) lost in madness as well as an extended (and amusing) aside involving a gravedigger (Scott Wichmann). But the main reason some later scenes sag is because they don't have Hamlet in them. The tall, bald and impassioned Solomon is such a driving force in this production that, when he is off-stage, the wind sometimes drops out of this ship's sails.
Solomon succeeds by vividly conjuring up a tempest of conflicting emotions that drive Hamlet shakily down his path to tragedy. The actor also has enough comic sensibility to bring a light touch to his more lunatic ranting without losing the dignity the role requires.
Thankfully, Solomon dominates most every scene of the first act, which lays the groundwork for Hamlet's unfortunate fate. His uncle, Claudius, King of Denmark (Dejon Mayes), has murdered Hamlet's father and married his widowed mother, Gertrude (Susan Sanford). Nothing less than the ghost of his father (played by Dante Giammarco) commands Hamlet to avenge this heinous act of fratricide. While he finally does so, in the process he wrecks or ends the life of nearly every person close to him.
Several competent actors play the supporting players in this tragic game, but none of them makes an enduring impression. As Laertes (Hamlet's opponent in the final duel), Peter Wylie has a dashing presence, but his character is relegated to a few scenes at the beginning and end of the play. Sanford effectively projects a regal bearing as Queen Gertrude but is also not given much to do. The opening scene allows Mayes to show his skill at portraying a somewhat smug yet humble leader. Unfortunately, his delivery becomes strained later on.
Mostly, this is Solomon's show and he runs with it. He is given excellent technical help, particularly in the form of Steve Forth, the show's fight director. The extended duel at the show's end, where fists, daggers and swords are all used, is convincingly staged, and both Solomon and Wylie prove nimble in their fighting technique. Of course, most nimble in all of this is Shakespeare's language. Few plays have as many striking symbols and stirring soliloquies as "Hamlet." Well delivered by this capable cast, these words enlighten and entertain, remaining powerful 400 years after they were first performed. Listen well.
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