Review: ‘Hamlet’ at A.C.T. (***1/2)

by Charles Kruger

From L to R: The Ghost of King Hamlet (Stephen Anthony Jones) visits his son, Prince Hamlet (John Douglas Thompson), with interesting results. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

It has been said of “Hamlet” that the poetic and philosophical content is so rich, the characters so perfectly realized, the plotting so masterfully intricate, the humor and tragedy so delicately balanced, that it is impossible for any production to completely fail. I get the point, but I’ve seen some Hamlets (emphatically not the present instance) that could only lead to the conclusion that something was rotten in the state of the company.

“Hamlet” is such a large canvas, and the text so incredibly familiar to theatregoers, that few contemporary directors resist the temptation to find some new angle, to explore some as-yet-unrealized facet of this gem. Sometimes this leads to brilliantly exciting work (as with Berkeley’s Shotgun Theatre production of the astonishing “Hamlet” roulette), and sometimes to disaster.

In the current production, Carey Perloff has successfully attempted something just as radical: to simplify “Hamlet” almost to the point of making it a chamber play, relying on subtlety over spectacle, and putting enormous effort into clarifying the language and allowing the actors’ voices, above all else, to tell the story. Given the difficulties of Elizabethan English for modern audiences, this is a risky choice. It  requires enormous skill on the part of the director and the company and the willingness to take the time and effort to polish every linguistic detail.

Every member of the company—actors and the entire creative team—hits it out of the ballpark, including the “minor” characters.

This is not a perfect Hamlet. It’s action is slow, and it is not as multifaceted as it might be. Much has been sacrificed for the clarity of diction that is a hallmark of the production. Much of the staging is, frankly, pedestrian. And two of the play’s “showcase” moments are played so diffidently that they disappear from memory almost immediately. (I refer to the famous “mousetrap” sequence—the play within a play—and the final sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes.)

On the other hand, the careful attention given the language and diction leads to some superb moments. Stephen Anthony Jones, in the dual roles of Claudius and The Ghost, is allowed to take plenty of time with his soliloquies, and in this production they are as dramatically thrilling as any of Hamlet’s. As they should be.

John Douglas Thompson is an excellent, world-weary Hamlet. What he lacks in athleticism, he makes up in a lyrical performance that is gorgeous to hear. Yes, this emphasis on the music of the language is old fashioned, but it is wonderful nonetheless.

As Gertrude, Domenique Lozano creates a complex and subtle character, full of charm and denial. Her gradual awakening to the true circumstances surrounding her second marriage is very convincing and well played.

Also special is the familial relationship of Polonius and his family. Dan Hiatt is a fine Polonius, both fond and foolish. As Laertes and Ophelia, Teagle F. Bougere and Rivka Borek portray a loving pair of siblings, who enjoy easy banter with one another and a fine depth of feeling.

Anthony Fusco brings a scholarly and appropriately uptight manner to Horatio, a man who is puzzled but loyal and decent to the end. The rapport between Fusco’s Horatio and Thompson’s Hamlet is easy and heartfelt.

Overall, this production is distinguished by many carefully wrought scenes between two or three actors, beautifully polished in a near chamber style. Where it falls short, perhaps, is in achieving the overall spectacle and excitement that the play can generate.

What this production may lack in overall conception is more than compensated by the exceptional moment-to-moment attention lavished on Shakespeare’s very specific language. This is a Hamlet for those who particularly relish the poetry of the play.

“Hamlet” continues at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre through Otober 15th. . For further  information, click here.

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Rating:  ***1/2  (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Hamlet” by William  Shakespeare. Produced by A.C.T. Director: Carey Perloff. Scenic and Costume Designer: David Israel Reynoso. Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls. Sound Designer: Jake Rodriguez. Composer: David Coulter. Fight Director: Jonathan Rider.

Cast:

Barnardo/Guildenstern/Priest: Vincent J. Rndazzo. Francisco/Rosencrantz/Gravedigger 2: Teddy Spencer.Horatio: Anthony Fusco/Marcellus/Captain/Osric/Player: Peter Fanone. Claudius/Ghost: Steven Anthony Jones. Player Queen/Voltemand/Messenger: Adrianna Mitchell. Laertes/Lucianus: Teagle F. Bougere. Polonius: Dan Hiatt. Hamlet: John Douglas Thompson. Gertrude: Domeique Lozano. Ophelia: Rivka Borek. Player King/Gravedigger: Graham Beckel.Fortinbras: Jomar Tagatac. 

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