Story: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is distraught over his father’s death. When his uncle Claudius quickly marries Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and assumes the throne, the prince suspects that his uncle orchestrated the death of Hamlet’s father in order to become king himself. With that murder as motivation, the ‘melancholy Dane’ sets about an elaborate scheme to avenge his father’s death.

Highlights: Artistic director Donna Northcott started St. Louis Shakespeare in 1984. When it concludes its 30th season in March 2015 with a production of Henry VI, St. Louis Shakespeare will become just the seventh theater nationwide to perform every comedy, tragedy and history in the Bard’s canon, some 38 works in all.

To kick off this commemorative season in stellar fashion, Northcott cast actress Maggie (Murphy) Wininger in the lead role. It’s a risk that paid off handsomely with a marvelous, emotive portrayal by the gifted performer that offset some weaker performances in the large cast.

Other Info: There’s no mistaking who this Hamlet is, as evinced by Murphy: He’s a guy who is psychologically brittle, emotionally distraught and intellectually cunning, but thoroughly a guy nonetheless. Just as male actors in Shakespeare’s time played all the parts, including those of female characters, Wininger avoids ‘camp’ and to her own portrayal of Hamlet is true.

Dressed in baggy slacks and ripped T-shirt under her dark blazer, courtesy of clever costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, Wininger prowls the stage as the prince sets about trapping his uncle for the latter’s fratricide. She mocks Polonius, here portrayed in droll, amusing style by Richard Lewis as a thick-witted dunderhead more than a clever royal counselor, by slicing apart his wearying aphorisms.

Wininger’s Hamlet also cruelly baits the fragile Ophelia, endearingly etched by Taylor Steward as she shows Ophelia’s alarming collapse into insanity.

Additionally, Wininger lampoons Hamlet’s buds, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, chastising them for a lack of loyalty that the prince senses in them. In this version, director Northcott presents the audience with a pair of light-footed dandies in those roles as played by Paul Edwards and Shane Bosillo, the latter adorned with a punk rock-style coat.

Presented on a raised stage minimally designed by Pippin McGowan to allow performers access and egress from various curtains and aisles surrounding it, Northcott gives this rendition a modern setting, even throwing in the obligatory cell phones for comic effect. Not so funny are the ponytails adorning two of the court guards, which may work in the trenches but not in the stuffy, hallowed halls of royalty, even circa 21st century.

Wininger proves herself adept at swordplay as well, as Hamlet and Polonius’ son Laertes tangle in Erik Kuhn’s stirring fight choreography. Jeff Roberts added some effectively creepy sound design, Nathan Schroeder designed the lighting and Serena McCarthy brought along several convincing props, including the skull of Yorick ‘dug up’ by gravediggers beneath the set.

Others in the cast included Kelly Schnider as Gertrude, perplexed and alarmed by her son’s descent into instability, and Ethan Jones as a low-key Claudius, who seemed a bit slow to react to his nephew’s suspicions.

Michael Amoroso was a sincere and convincing Laertes and Kevin Minor was fine as Hamlet’s dutiful friend Horatio. Ben Watts was the no-nonsense, loyal Osric, attendant to Polonius and Claudius, and Tom Moore was the brooding ghost of King Hamlet as well as a jocular gravedigger.

The Mousetrap players were portrayed by Alyssa Ward, Joshua Saboorizadeh, Patience Davis and Erik Kuhn, while Tim Callahan did triple duty as a guard, a priest and a pirate.

Many supporting roles were lacking in subtlety and depth, but not enough to dilute the power and persuasion of Wininger’s Hamlet or even Lewis’ doddering Polonius. After all, the play’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of a production. This Hamlet was serious and engaging stuff, indeed.

Play: Hamlet

Company: St. Louis Shakespeare

Venue: 560 Music Center

Dates: Run concluded

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Kim Carlson