As one of the great male roles in all of theater, Hamlet demands quite a bit from any actor who portrays him. Every production of Hamlet makes or breaks on the strength of the performer in the title role. Director Jason Cannon knew this going in, and so when casting the RiverCity Theatre/Vanity Theatre's production of Shakespeare's tragedy, Cannon went with Jim Butz as the melancholy Dane. It was both a sensible and fateful choice (two RFT theater critics who shall remain nameless swooned manfully, mind you over the thought of Butz in the role). Then, a week before the production opened, Butz developed a throat problem and was advised by doctors to pull out of the show.
Fully aware of the risks inherent in starring in a play he was also directing and producing, Cannon decided to go ahead with the show, taking over the role of Hamlet with the blessing of the rest of his cast and crew.
The back story is important here. Hamlet is rigorous, tough stuff; Cannon had assembled a powerhouse cast and with less than a week to go a new actor was thrown into the mix: How was this going to affect the show? Can an actor create a convincing Hamlet in so short a time?
As a director, Cannon went with a minimalist set. Three vertical panels of what appear to be muslin hint at Castle Elsinore's windows; a series of gray blocks stand in for furniture, thrones, beds, stairs. Costumes are sleek and stark, the men in mostly black. The royal couple Claudius (Gary Wayne Barker) and Gertrude (Lavonne Byers) wear sumptuous brocade robes, while Ophelia (Sarah Cannon) gets a lovely gown.
Barker and Byers were regal and commanding, Byers gliding across the stage with the casual grace of a born queen. Terry Meddows' Polonius was a supercilious and pedantic marvel, in love with his own slightly nasal voice. And Joneal Joplin, appearing as the ghost of Hamlet's father through a very slick bit of chicanery involving those muslin panels, was a protean force, a ghost of such fearsome grief that his voice rang with the macabre clangor of the sepulcher. (Cannon also did the lighting design, and his use of these panels was dramatic and very effective throughout.)
Only Cannon seemed off the pace in the early going, a little paler, a little less real than his cohorts. But then something marvelous happened.
About the time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Charlie Barron and Daniel Lanier, respectively) appeared, Cannon seemed to disappear and Hamlet manifested fully. The change was subtle, but it was noticeable: A large man, Cannon suddenly became much larger on the stage, his timbre richer, his movements more determined. There was palpable menace in his eyes as he sparred verbally with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and his confrontation with his mother Gertrude was positively stomach-churning: Hamlet grabs her up and bends her backward as she trembles and contorts in the face of her son's rage and disgust and love. The murder of Claudius was a monstrous, physical act of denial and if it was a satisfying catharsis for the audience, it was far less so for poor Hamlet, whose frame was overcome by a great shudder as his uncle slumped lifeless in his arms.
The final scene is beautiful and terrible Hamlet, dying of an envenomed blade, leaves his body and enters the realm of ghosts; through a gorgeous piece of staging and lighting, we see the phantoms who have tormented Hamlet and the shades of those he has slain. The actual mechanics of this scene are astounding, so simple and yet so beautiful that Hamlet appears to be in a cathedral built on murder, vengeance, remorse and sadness. A cathedral can supply absolution and epiphany, and Cannon's Hamlet achieves a measure of each in this moment. But the audience receives that rarest of gifts a moment when actor and audience disappear together in the now, when the play is lost and there is only one soul in all the world. And we see that soul gutter and die, and the horror of all human endeavor is revealed, and Yorick nods knowingly from the shadows.
Is this a perfect Hamlet? No. But it's an honest Hamlet, unflinching and vital, its compass the madness of the human heart, emphasis on human.