The melancholy Dane gets fierce in this most professional staging by Mary Moody Northen Theatre

Words, words, words: David Stahl's Polonius tries to get a straight answer from Seth Stewart's Hamlet about what he's reading.
Words, words, words: David Stahl's Polonius tries to get a straight answer from Seth Stewart's Hamlet about what he's reading. (photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire)

Mary Moody Northen Theatre, 3001 S. Congress
Through Nov. 23
Running time: 3 hr.

The Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edward's University – a somewhat hidden gem in the Austin theatre community – is not only a unique theatre space in town, but the St. Ed's theatre department's practice of bringing in Equity actors to work alongside their undergraduate performers yields professional-grade student theatre that rivals the quality of many Austin-area productions, and the current production of Hamlet is no exception. While guest artists Kenneth Wayne Bradley (Claudius), Meredith McCall (Gertrude), and David Stahl (Polonius) contribute polished performances, the students are not left struggling in their shadows, resulting in a consistent production throughout.

Seth Stewart holds his own as Hamlet, bearing the brunt of the play's line load with ease and intelligence. Of the myriad emotions Hamlet oscillates among, Stewart's performance focuses primarily on the prince's angst and contempt, particularly toward his mother and uncle for their hasty marriage. Playing the Dane as more angry than melancholy, this Hamlet spares no one, not even his love interest, Ophelia, played by the adept Cheyenne Barton. In contrast to the more common interpretation of Ophelia as a demure, obedient maiden, Barton's Ophelia is bold, strong-willed, and less tolerant of Hamlet's fickle treatment. Ryan Mattingly and Jordan Mersberger (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively) provide ample comic relief as Hamlet's comrades commissioned by Claudius to keep watch over the brooding prince.

The technical aspects also exude professionalism. The costumes by Susan Branch Towne and lighting by Kathryn Eader are exquisite, both adding aesthetic touches that enhance the production. K. Eliot Haynes' sound design utilizes instrumental pieces during scene transitions to echo the action of the play. And the duel to the death between Laertes (Jake McVickers) and Hamlet owes its enthralling nature to David M. Long's expertly crafted fight choreography, as well as Stewart and McVickers' charged performances.

Director Michelle Polgar incorporates the ledges over the theatre's four exits to showcase certain dramatic moments, making the first appearance of King Hamlet's ghost and the players' performance of The Murder of Gonzago before Claudius even more memorable by their placement on these overhangs. Set designer Lisa Laratta provides a three-piece, multileveled staircase of sorts that begins grouped together but is later detached into multiple pieces. While this minimalistic design never detracts from the language and events of the play, its setup time occasionally lags, creating some slightly long scene transitions in the second half. Still, its circular placement and clockwise rotations during transitions – coupled with a looming wooden chandelier-type circle always hanging overhead – are reminiscent of a clock, highlighting the play's ongoing urgency in the face of impending doom, be it from disputes within Elsinore or those brewing abroad.

From aesthetics to staging, this Hamlet pairs various elements of professional theatre with raw student talent for a marriage far more successful than Claudius and Gertrude's. The attention paid to detail at every level of this production results in an enjoyable, even rendition with something to engage scholars and Shakespeare neophytes alike.

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Mary Moody Northen Theatre, Hamlet, Michelle Polgar, David M. Long, David Stahl, Kenneth Wayne Bradley, Meredith McCall, Susan Branch Towne, Kathryn Eader, Seth Stewart, Cheyenne Barton, Jake McVickers

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