Good acting, austere set make for an engaging `Hamlet'



Mist covers the stage, and a solitary seated figure declaims his misery. Thus begins a powerful production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, directed by Kasi Campbell for Rep Stage.

Hamlet's speech, in Act II, is in grim harmony with the rough, dark walls of the set. An open grave yawns in the center of a bare playing area, a symbol of the death that has caused Hamlet's grief and an omen of the many deaths to come.

Hamlet is in mourning for his late father, the king of Denmark. He is scandalized by the fact that less than two months after the burial, his mother, Queen Gertrude, has married the king's brother, Claudius, who is now on the throne.

Hamlet observes the complacency with which Claudius and Gertrude go about their royal duties and the domestic bliss they enjoy. Their heartlessness sickens him.

Worse is to come. His father's ghost appears, revealing that his death was no mishap but a murder planned by Claudius. He commands Hamlet to avenge him.

Here is a recipe for a rip-roaring melodrama, but Shakespeare takes a different path. Though tortured by these wrongs, Hamlet does not act. Instead, in one soliloquy after another he analyzes his situation and his mental state. The ambiguity of his character has been an irresistible challenge to actors and directors over four centuries.

Karl Miller's Hamlet is disturbed and overwrought, given to abrupt, nervous gestures and tortured grimaces -- a manner which, thankfully, becomes less intense as the play progresses.

Miller brings passion to his speeches and ably expresses Hamlet's bitter humor, but the character remains a difficult one to feel much empathy for.

Nigel Reed, a suave and self-satisfied Claudius, reveals fine dramatic power as the king's life begins to fall apart.

Valerie Leonard shows Gertrude whole, from her regal air to her desperate love for her son Hamlet. Both actors smoothly handle Shakespeare's poetic and declamatory passages.

Polonius, the court chamberlain, is often thought of as a benevolent old bore. In Lawrence Redmond's clever performance, he is a middle-aged bureaucrat in a neat gray suit -- precise, wordy, unemotional and scheming.

Polonius is full of flattery for the king and queen and full of advice for his children. Laertes and Ophelia listen to him with sly smiles -- they've heard it all before.

Laertes (Daniel Frith) takes after his father in one way: He lectures his sister on maidenly behavior, though his life is not blameless. It is Laertes who, at the play's climax, finally goads Hamlet into taking action. Their duel, expertly choreographed by Paul Dennhardt, is well fought by both actors.

As played by Kathleen Coons, Ophelia is not the traditional sweet, innocent girl but a voluptuous young woman. Her romantic relationship with Hamlet is frankly physical.

The part of Hamlet's friend Horatio is a thankless one. He is basically a yes man, a feeder of lines, but he gets his chance to shine at the play's climax. Aubrey Deeker works conscientiously through the production, finally rising to the occasion with the memorable line, "Good night, sweet prince," and the speeches that follow it.

James Flanagan and Brandon McCoy play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively, as buffoons. They do it skillfully, adding some welcome comedy to the show, but we're left to wonder why an intelligent man like Hamlet would have wanted them as close friends.

As the Gravedigger, a plum role for the right actor, Jeff Baker is on target with a funny and believable performance.

James Denvil appears as the First Player, head of the traveling acting troupe that brings much needed color to the stage in Acts II and III. He also portrays the Ghost of Hamlet's father and the Priest at Ophelia's funeral, and gives individuality to all three roles.

The text of Hamlet runs more than four hours, so Campbell, the director, follows the usual course of staging a trimmed version. She draws depth and detail from her actors and makes ingenious use of Tony Cisek's austere and imaginative set.

Dan Covey's lighting, elaborate but subtle, informs every minute of the production. The costumes by Kathleen Geldard are vaguely contemporary in style, lending familiarity to a society distant from the audience's experience.

Rep Stage presents Shakespeare's "Hamlet" through April 9. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays (no matinee April 8) and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays in Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Reservations: 410-772- 4900, or repstage

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