Writers’ Theatre: “Hamlet”

A Shakespeare tragedy filled with death and madness isn’t supposed to be funny, is it?

Think again. Even in a dark drama like “Hamlet,” the Bard’s sharp wit keeps poking at us. The jokes really are there, if the actors are allowed to deliver them.

Director Michael Halberstam brings a playful touch to his interpretation of “Hamlet” at Writers’ Theatre. For example, he lets actor Ross Lehman revel in Polonius’ humorously exasperating speeches. And even the notoriously gloomy title character, played here by Scott Parkinson, gets quite a few absurdly funny and impish moments — in those scenes when Hamlet behaves especially manic and defiant.

None of this is to say that Halberstam’s “Hamlet” is insufficiently tragic. Those little comic touches just give the play balance, making it into more than a nonstop morose march toward catastrophe. And this production also has its share of horror, including the ethereal ghost played by Larry Yando with aid from a creepy vocal effect.

Parkinson does a remarkable job of capturing the bipolar aspects of Hamlet’s personality, deftly steering the troubled Danish prince on sharp turns from brooding melancholia to outbursts of anger and flights of fancy. Hamlet might have been an alarming and annoying person to be around, but Parkinson manages to make him sympathetic.

Scenic designer Collette Pollard’s minimalist set places all of the action in front of a stone wall that looks scarred by fire or battle. The action freezes in a tableau whenever there’s a soliloquy by Hamlet or Ophelia (played by Liesel Matthews in a performance that turns searing and visceral). These frozen moments are a post-modern touch in this medieval tale of woe, highlighting the psychological insights Shakespeare had centuries before Freud.

Halberstam and his superb cast make this often-performed play feel like a fresh revelation.

“Hamlet” continues through Nov. 11 at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. For tickets and information call 847-242-6000 or see www.writerstheatre.org.