“To be, or not to be, that is the question,” begins Deborah Staples as Hamlet upon the stage. She stares out at the audience, alone on the stage, as she performs the famous soliloquy. She glares. She pauses. She moves back and forth, drawing the audience in further by exposing Hamlet’s mind to us. You watch enthralled as Staples explores Hamlet’s questioning of life, death, and what lies beyond.

For its 39th season, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival brings an amazing cast together to perform one of the Bard’s most famous plays. Directed by Leda Hoffmann, Hamlet finds a balance of the comedic within the tragic. In part, the balance comes from the cast understanding and enjoying their roles. The other part comes from striking the right tone for the play through stage design and costuming. Illinois Shakes’ Hamlet is an accessible and enjoyable rendition of William Shakespeare’s work.

Even though you hear the cicadas singing in the trees above you, the play’s stage design and effects make you feel like you were in another time and place. The design is minimal but effective with its gray balcony and stairs to resemble stone. A fog machine and the sound of wind rushing make you believe that Elsinore is in an eerie location. As the guard walks back and forth, staring out and rubbing his arms, you almost believe that he isn’t in Illinois and that he isn’t a performer. Doors allow the cast to come and go in scenes as well. For example, Hamlet (Staples) evades the guards, Rosencrantz (Ben Muller), and Guildenstern (Nathaniel Andalis) by rushing on and off stage from various entrances in the second act. The thrust stage also allows for path leading off into the audience, which the actors used for key scenes. A large rug covers the open stage, and when it is rolled away in the second act, another element of the stage design reveals itself. Because of these elements, Elsinore and its surroundings come to life.

With a number of veteran Shakespearean actors, the denizens of Denmark are portrayed beautifully. Mark Corkins as the Ghost projects his voice in his opening scenes with Hamlet in the graveyard. Lit by green light and dressed in a white robe, he seems otherworldly. This performance stands in stark contrast to his portrayal of the King. Corkins’ baritone voice commands the floor, but the King is an earthly man dressed in red, black, and gold. Lori Adams as Queen Gertrude is the epitome of matriarch in appearance and bearing. She portrays Gertrude as a resilient individual and supportive co-ruler with the King (up and to a point). When she is swayed by Hamlet in the Queen’s closet in Act III, scene IV, her inner turmoil is written on her face as she pleads with Hamlet to stop.

As noted at the beginning of this review, Staples is Hamlet. She is agile, expressive, and emotive. Her Hamlet is active instead of passive as he attempts to root to the truth of his father’s death. While others portray Hamlet’s madness as actual madness or depression (in some cases), Staples’ Hamlet is almost comedic. When Polonius (Jonanthan G. Daly) confronts Hamlet about Ophelia’s letters, Staples comes across as believably awkward and intentionally evasive. One refreshing aspect of Staples as Hamlet and Hoffamn’s direction is the choice to ignore the sexual tension sometimes found between Hamlet and Queen Gertrude along with Ophelia (Eva Ballistieri). There is genuine affection in the scenes between Ballistieri’s Ophelia and Staples’ Hamlet, but neither one is physically doing anything to each other. The choice is an informed one, and it makes Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia seem more realistic for the setting of the play.

Overall, I wish I could spend more time talking about the play and moments that I adored (like Daly’s straight-forward and not clownish Polonius and Ballisteri’s eerie song as mad Ophelia as she doled out rocks instead of plants). Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s Hamlet is an excellent and faithful interpretation of the play with a notable cast of professionals. I may have to go back again for Hamlet (or to catch the actors in one of the other plays).

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For ticket prices and information, see the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's website

Images used with permission from Illinois Shakespeare Festival. 

Sarah Keim is a contributing writer for Smile Politely’s Arts section. She's a bit of recluse on social media, but you might bump into her out in the wilds of C-U. Frequent sightings occur at farmers’ markets, movie theaters, and Shakespeare plays.