The Guthrie Theater, which is moving to a new venue next season, closed its doors as Sir Tyrone Guthrie opened them in 1963—with a production of Hamlet on the famous thrust stage at Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Sir Tyrone's production starred George Grizzard as Hamlet and Jessica Tandy as Gertrude. Artistic Director Joe Dowling drew his cast largely from perennial Guthrie players with a notable exception: his Hamlet, Santino Fontana, is a fresh-faced actor of twenty-four. While such young Hamlets are common on college stages, they seem much harder to find in the professional and commercial theatre. Dowling, whose knack for drawing crowds has enabled him to build the Guthrie's impressive new home, took the risk of shaping his production around the youth of its protagonist and his peers: Ophelia, Horatio, Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern were all played by young actors. For audiences who [End Page 84] had seen Simon Russell Beale as the Danish prince when his production came to the Guthrie for a short run a few years ago, Dowling's gamble paid off: the youthfulness of the play's 'children' made their errors more understandable and forgivable than they sometimes seem when older actors take the parts, and this contributed to the vitality of the production. With only one twenty-minute intermission, this three-hour Hamlet moved swiftly and energetically to its final violent scene.
Like Ethan McSweeney's youthful and fast-paced Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie in 2004, Dowling's Hamlet focused on youth caught up in the complications of a corrupt world. Fontana's prince often seemed like an anxious adolescent, uncertain of himself even as he declared his convictions. While the soliloquies retained some power here, they were less effective at conveying the prince as contemplative or guilt-ridden than at giving us the sense of Hamlet's loss, particularly the loss of his parents—his father through death and his mother through her "falling off." Indeed, the production emphasized Hamlet's defining relationships—the bonds that determined his sense of self as well as his attempts to discern their true nature. The most powerful moments were thus not the soliloquies but those scenes in which Hamlet made contact with peers—Horatio, Laertes, and, most notably, Ophelia. Fontana's Hamlet struggled against the alienation that has often seemed inseparable from the part. Drawing on the ensemble acting that has characterized Guthrie productions, Dowling underscored this young Hamlet's ultimately doomed efforts to remain connected to others.
Ophelia's development provided a good example of this emphasis on youth and the need for emotional intimacy. The play's costume and set design, which drew associations with depression-era fascism, world-war militarism, and postwar moral hypocrisy, heightened Ophelia's movement from naiveté to knowingness. In 3.1 there was a moment of real tenderness in which Hamlet did in fact lay his head in her lap, anticipating the banter of The Mousetrap scene. His quiet question—"Where is your father?"—punctuated an unusually gentle "nunnery" speech; her equivocal "At home" in the next line, delivered while Hamlet still had his head in her lap and both characters faced the audience but not each other, ruptured their intimacy more powerfully than the most violent emotional outburst: we saw Ophelia struggle between following her father's command and soothing the very evident pain of the young man she loved; we also witnessed his misery, as much at the world's corruption...