You can tell a lot about an audience’s connection with a play by the level of emotion they express when it’s over. In the case of The Rep’s current production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the standing ovation was instant and heartfelt on opening night.

Jim Poulos plays the title role triumphantly, swinging from laughter to frenzy at the drop of a hat, but there’s nothing contrived about it. Hamlet is driven to distraction following the murder of his father the king by Hamlet’s own uncle, Claudius, so his confusion and rage are easy to understand. He struggles with the fact that Claudius not only killed his father, but covered up the crime, usurped the throne and married Hamlet’s mother—so there are many emotional forces tearing at the young prince. The story is about the fine line between deep grief and madness, and Poulos manages to show that delicate balance with a great deal of skill. Hamlet’s love, Ophelia (Kim Wong), descends into the same kind of abyss after her own father, Polonius, is killed, and Wong portrays her turmoil convincingly.

Claudius is played by Michael James Reed, and his presence is commanding as well. Robynn Rodriguez is endearing as Hamlet’s mother the queen, and a number of other actors mingle humor with tragedy in a way that’s very appealing.

The cast’s command of Shakespearean language and expression is impressive, too. It’s the kind of dialog that can be hard to follow, but this talented cast really brings its meaning home, matching the right emotions, looks and gestures with their words. The stage extends upward into the seats in one area, so the audience feels even more a part of the action as Hamlet and his companions parade back and forth.

It’s also interesting to be reminded of all the common expressions we use today that originated in Shakespeare, including “woe is me,” “cruel to be kind,” and “every dog will have his day.” Double entendres keep the audience mentally on their toes, and the characters’ verbal sparring is just as exciting as the scene where Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother Laertes duel with fencing foils. Director Paul Mason Barnes brought in fight director Paul Dennhardt to choreograph the heart-pounding confrontation.

The on-stage landscape is sparse and dark, with a scaffolding frame and snow sprinkling in the background during outdoor scenes. But that kind of simplicity works well for a story where feelings are raw and base. The lighting helps convey the varying emotions that are at work, and I also was impressed by the embroidered and goldtrimmed details of the royal costumes during the play’s ceremonial scenes.

This is The Rep’s first take on Hamlet, and I think the Bard himself would smile on the production. It commands the full range of emotion he must have intended, from both the players and the viewers.

Hamlet is at The Rep on Webster University’s campus through November 5.

upcoming shows
baskerville: a sherlock holmes mystery | through Oct. 29
A humorous new play by Ken Ludwig at Insight Theatre Company
the student prince | Nov. 10 & 12
A light opera by Sigmund Romberg at Winter Opera Saint Louis
a beheading in spokane | Dec. 1-17
A story of love, hate, desperation and hope at The Gaslight Theater

Pictured at top: Jim Poulos as Hamlet
Photo: Peter Wochniak