Josh Scharback’s Hamlet is a twitchy guy.
Any prince would be if his uncle murdered his father and just a few months later wedded and bedded his mother.
By the Second Act of the Theater at Monmouth’s production of “Hamlet,” Scharback’s Prince of Denmark is so uncomfortable in his own skin that he’s always on the verge of jumping out of it. That is what makes his performance so riveting and gives the production its edgy, 21st-century feel even though the sets and costumes aren’t modern.
Director Jeri Pitcher’s production of “Hamlet” at the Theater at Monmouth is pitch-perfect. The nearly bare set and Elizabethan-style costumes, except for Hamlet’s black leather jacket, put the focus where it should be — on the characters’ emotions.
No individual in Shakespeare’s canon has the emotional arc Hamlet does. Pitcher has shown her troupe of actors not just where the peaks and valleys are on that roller coaster but how to hang on and ride them. None does this better than Scharback.
The actor, who also is a paramedic for the FDNY, has grown immensely as a performer since he appeared as Prince Hal at Monmouth in a 2001 production that combined “Henry IV,” Parts I and II. His Hamlet is a young man consumed by grief, who does not just seek revenge for his father’s death, but also tries to control his world, which is spinning off its axis.
Whether his experience as an actor or as a paramedic or some combination of both has given him such insight into the human soul doesn’t really matter. The fact that Scharback wrings every drop of emotion from the character and turns him from a Danish prince into a modern-day Everyman does.
Emily Rast gives a stunning performance as Hamlet’s doomed love, Ophelia. It is as ephemeral as Scharback’s is rooted in the ground. Her lilting soprano gives an airy quality to Ophelia’s mad songs that underscores how adrift she is without the love of her father or Hamlet. Rast, an acting intern at Monmouth, shows a depth beyond her years and succeeds at capturing the fragility of the human heart and mind as few others who’ve played Ophelia have.
Janis Stevens and Dan Olmstead as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and his uncle, Claudius, respectively, exude a sexual tension that is rare in most productions of “Hamlet.” Stevens’ queen is in denial about how Hamlet’s father died until her bitter end. Her Gertrude sees only what she wants to see.
Olmstead’s Claudius, who too often is played simply as a villain, is a man torn asunder by what he has done and the consequences that flow from his decision to kill his brother. In wearing the character’s guilt on his sleeve, Olmstead makes Claudius an almost sympathetic character and his actions understandable. In a subtle way, the actor shows the audience the flawed man Hamlet might have become had his father lived.
In the end, the bulk of the credit for this production’s success goes to Scharback. His Hamlet is a triumph in his emotional accessibility. Before the audience’s eyes, Scharback’s prince grows from a confused student into a king — the boy becomes a man of action.
The fact that he does it without light sabers or magic potions or blue screens is a tribute not just to the timelessness of the Bard but also to the theater company’s 40 years of devotion to illuminating Shakespeare for generations of Maine’s lovers of theater.
IF YOU GO
What: “Hamlet,” by William Shakespeare
Where: Theater at Monmouth, Cumston Hall, 796 Main St., Monmouth
When: In repertory through Aug. 22
Running time: 2½ hours with a 10-minute intermission
What else: 933-9999, www.TheateratMonmouth.org