If you’re tapping your feet impatiently awaiting the return of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” Oak Park Festival Theatre’s current production of “Hamlet” may provide some relief. Director Lavina Jadhwani’s staging, adapted by Jadhwani and Doug Finlayson, sets the action in the 1920s-era Hotel Denmark, where Claudius holds court with his henchmen and plots to get rid of anyone — especially a nephew — who threatens his tenuous grip on power or disrespects his kingpin status.
It’s an eminently workable choice. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are essentially hit men by proxy, after all. Polonius’ observation that Hamlet “sometimes walks four hours together here in the lobby” makes perfect sense for a hotel setting, which is itself a great metaphor for people trapped, as Hamlet is, in a state of existential limbo. (Though he’s far more philosophical, Hamlet, like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” still seems to feel “kind of temporary” about himself.)
It takes a while to find its spine in the first act. The outdoor setting with the noise of overhead planes and street traffic clashes with the self-protective claustrophobia of the court. Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s Art Deco-by-way-of-mausoleum set featuring gray moldy columns topped by sad wilted ferns — the only signs of life in this death-dealing world — neatly suggest the rot underneath the surface bluster. The latter quality is embodied by Jack Hickey’s Claudius, whose barrel-chested swagger and hair-trigger temperament has some passing echoes of Bob Hoskins’ performance in “The Long Good Friday.”
In the title role, Michael McKeogh brings febrile energy and histrionic wit, whether chasing Michael Joseph Mitchell’s Polonius around like a bull or carting the dead Polonius offstage over his shoulder from Gertrude’s bedroom with a cheery “Goodnight, Mother!” (Like so many hapless consiglieres before him, Polonius ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and gets bludgeoned to death for his troubles.) There is little doubt that this Hamlet is mostly sane — but he is also badly outnumbered and outmaneuvered by fate and by Claudius’ take-no-prisoners death grip on his fiefdom.
Sara Pavlak’s Ophelia, while a bit uncertain in the early scenes, convincingly finds the anguish under the poor girl’s madness by the end. Kelly Lynn Hogan’s self-protective and self-justifying Gertrude, clad in Rachel Sypniewski’s stylish flapper duds, feels like a Jazz Age version of Carmela Soprano.
Perhaps the most interesting casting choice Jadhwani has made here is with Michael Pogue as Horatio. Pogue is the only black actor in the cast, and that works beautifully with both the 1920s time period, when no black man could easily fit in at the seats of power (legal or otherwise), and Horatio’s evergreen function as the outsider to the power plays. Pogue’s harmonica-playing troubadour provides the innate decency and insight lacking in so many of the others in this crabs-in-the-bucket world. (Fortinbras, as so often happens, is nowhere to be seen in this adaptation.)
Oh, and that final showdown between McKeogh’s Hamlet and Michael Mercier’s Laertes? In place of swords, it’s a full-on fist fight (beautifully designed by Victor Bayona’s and Richard Gilbert’s R&D Choreography) between two grieving sons. Both have been turned into pawns by older men — whether a ghost father or a cunning kingpin — and set loose to enact bloody vengeance, ensuring that there are no real winners in this power-mad world.