It was a beautiful night for a tragedy. Temperature in the mid-60s, squirrels rustling in the branches overhead, a quartet of ducks winging through the grove seemingly just out of reach, a robust crowd of families and couples on blankets, young men with wispy facial hair roaming the hillside in the time-honored pursuit of pussy — Shakespeare would have loved this assembled mass of humanity, varied and lovely and familiar.
Shakespeare most likely would also have greatly enjoyed Bruce Longworth's direction of his blockbuster, Hamlet. This is as uncluttered and straightforward a production as you could want. Set on a multilevel representation of Castle Elsinore (well conceived by Jim Burwinkel) with a cast garbed in Elizabethan-era attire, it is a classicist's ideal of the play with the emphasis firmly on the language and the plot.
Jim Butz's Hamlet is clear-voiced and speaks said language with a remarkable fluency; this is a gift not to be taken lightly, especially if you're not sitting in the first ten rows. Even at the back of Shakespeare Glen where the actor's faces are indistinguishable, Butz conveys Hamlet's moral and intellectual quandary through his musical voice. Rage, despair, uncertainty, a sense of amazement and more come through his delivery — there isn't a bad seat in the house for this performance. But Hamlet is not all well-cultured speech; Butz goes full-berserker on Polonius (Anderson Matthews), dragging the man across the stage as he punches his dagger into his victim's torso again and again, and he worries Ophelia like a terrier with a rat when he confronts her.
As Hamlet's usurping uncle, Claudius, John Rensenhouse counters with a quavering voice that is ingratiating and wheedling. Claudius is compromised morally — he has killed his brother and married his former sister-in-law in order to gain the throne, after all — and Rensenhouse captures this slippery character with his desperately needy tone. His bargains and plots reveal a man who grasps endlessly for more, even when praying.
As with any outdoor performance, there are uncontrollable distractions. As Hamlet contemplates with awe "the undiscovered country" in his ageless "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy, the band at the nearby Boathouse fires up some R&B — Butz's performance is undeniably better. Hamlet ruthlessly harangues Gertrude (an excellent Deanne Lorette), and the full moon claws its way above the trees almost simultaneously with the appearance of Hamlet Senior's ghost, bathing all in silver and shadow. These are the sorts of happy accidents that enhance a wonderful evening and prove that there are few entertainments finer than three hours of Shakespeare under the stars with your fellow St. Louisans.