Most demanding among the characters Shakespeare created in his 38 plays was the Prince of Denmark. With some 1,500 lines, Hamlet is the largest role he wrote. The tragedy is Shakespeare’s longest work: its current production at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (the fourth CSC has staged) takes three hours and 10 minutes. It’s a marathon, especially for actor Brent Vimtrup, who inhabits this role of a grieving son in breathtaking ways.
Hamlet feigns (or intermittently suffers from) madness, fueled by the ghost of his father.
Is he driven by hallucinations or haunted by his vengeful father’s spirit? As the play unfolds, it’s evident that his scheming, unprincipled uncle, Claudius (Bruce Cromer), has indeed murdered the king and married Hamlet’s naïve mother, Queen Gertrude (Sherman Fracher). Yet Hamlet repeatedly doubts his perceptions and questions his own motives.
His doubts unfold in various monologues, today some of Shakespeare’s best-known passages. Vimtrup delivers them with such natural insight and personal gravity that they feel fresh and new. He also brings a vibrant, expressive physicality to the role that adds clarity to his performance. Hamlet advises players recruited to perform a story echoing his uncle’s crime, “O’erstep not the modesty of nature,” and Vimtrup follows that advice, regardless of how manic or deranged Hamlet appears — at his core, there’s a real man, grieving and unsure. Vimtrup’s performance encompasses an astonishing array of emotions but never feels overdone. Whether he is excoriating his own indecision, patronizing the fatuous Lord Chamberlain, Polonius (Paul Riopelle), debating whether to assassinate his nefarious uncle, railing at his weak-willed mother or berating his one-time love, the sensitive Ophelia (Sara Clark), Vimtrup is compellingly watchable.
The production also and humorously references its upcoming production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Feb. 14-March 9), in which Hamlet’s story is retold from the perspective of two minor characters. Vimtrup will return as Hamlet, a catalyst for the fate of his college chums.
HAMLET, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Feb. 9.