There’s a production picture for Bard and Bourbon’s Hamlet (Drunk.) The title character is speaking to Ophelia. This might be the last time they speak. Hamlet’s wearing a Harley Davidson hoodie. The smiling cheshire cat tattoo can be seen smiling beneath Ophelia’s shoulder. The glowing red Exit signs of Sunstone Studios can be seen hovering in the darkness behind them. The exit’s in sight. She really COULD get herself to a nunnery. It’s way too easy to look for symbolism in the imagery of that one photo. There’s one other thing that’s apparent in the photo: height.
Anya Palmer towers over Brittany F. Byrnes. Palmer plays Ophelia. Byrnes plays Hamlet. Palmer has a gorgeously magnificent stage presence that could easily feel overpowering. Byrnes’ relatively short stature and diminutive size could pose a challenge to anyone looking to assert themselves in one of the loftiest roles in the history of stage drama. Aided by Director Katie Merriman, Palmer and Byrnes find a really novel way of finessing the dynamic between Hamlet and Ophelia that makes for a captivating dynamic that makes for one of the more memorable Milwaukee productions of Shakespeare’s classic in the past couple of decades.
Byrnes has an imrpessively condensed energy about her in the role of Hamlet. What’s so often overlooked in casting is the fact that Hamlet’s energy is SO young. He’s a goth kid with mental health that’s been twisted by chance and circumstance. So often the energy of any actor playing Hamlet is WAY too old for me. I want a young Hamlet. Byrnes’ youth serves the role better than just about any actor I’ve ever seen in the role before. Byrnes’ energy is that of a powerful, little sinewy predator. Real passion and joy can be seen around the edges of the hunt for revenge...making for a very nuanced portrayal of one of the most revered tragic figures in dramatic history.
Palmer makes quite an impression onstage without saying anything at all. She’s got a natural poise that feels larger-than-life heroic. This worked particularly well in the WWII. drama ‘Neath the Hills of Bastogne that opened at Sunstone not too long ago. Here she’s playing a tragic figure. Palmer finds an endearing vulnerability in the role of Ophelia embracing a soft kindness that gently radiates. It’s calming until it’s not. Byrne’s voracious, little carnivore of revenge stalks through a scene that leaves Palmer’s kindness emotionally lacerated. Then there’s the death of Ophelia’s father and that final scene for her. The calm warmth Palmer brought to the stage early-on is tilted into a melancholy madness that’s all the more heartbreaking because it IS coming from an actor with such a powerfully assertive physical presence onstage.
Bard & Bourbon’s production of Hamlet (Drunk) runs through June 4th at on 127 E. Wells Street. For ticket reservations and more, visit sunstonestudiosmke.com. My comprehensive review of the show will be available with the Shepherd-Express in the next few days.