Toward the middle of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the brooding prince takes a break from his iconic revenge drama to give what might be the world's most famous director's notes: "Do not saw the air too much with your hand," Hamlet lectures a pack of actors who've shown up at the palace and are going to perform that night for the court, "but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness." In other words: Stay calm, don't overact, let the words do their work.
Director John Kazanjian has kept those commands close to his heart in New City Theater's austere, grounded, and autumnally moody production of Hamlet, starring Mary Ewald as the title character. This is one of those rare Shakespeare productions that doesn't feel like it's grasping after pomp or pyrotechnics and has a refreshing absence of young actors trying to prove themselves by being grandiosely "Shakespearean." It is, above all, mature. This is partly due to the combined experience of the actors on New City's small stage—Todd Moore as King Claudius, Kristen Kosmas as Ophelia, Peter Crook as Polonius, Seanjohn Walsh as the ghost, and Tim Gouran as Laertes—and also because it feels like a deeply lived-in production where the actors have taken their time to let the personalities of the characters emerge instead of trying to drape themselves in how they think the characters should behave. Kosmas's Ophelia isn't a quaking girl/ingenue but a fully grown, plainspoken woman. Moore's Claudius isn't an unctuous villain but a regretful man who's made some wretched choices and is just trying to hold himself and his kingdom together. And Ewald's Hamlet seems more like her murderous uncle's frustrated peer than an impetuous kid.
New City's design is simple but couldn't be more evocative of a 16th-century European castle—a narrow, corridor-like room with a musty dirt floor and nine large candles burning in sconces along a brick wall. The audience sits in one long row against the other wall, creating an almost uncomfortable intimacy in a play where eavesdropping, whispering, and spying on people from behind corners and curtains are matters of life and death.
Being so physically close to actors performing with such startling sincerity opens up the possibility of a whole new kind of attention to the text. In this production, "To be or not to be" lands just as hard as "What if this cursed hand were thicker than itself with brother's blood?" and "Give me that man that is not passion's slave and I will wear him in my heart's core." Even if you've seen Hamlet a dozen times, this production is so lucid, you'll hear lines you've never heard before.
By stripping away embellishments and keeping everything simple, Kazanjian and company have done something with Hamlet that seems almost impossible—they've made it new.