'Hamlet' played just right in D.C.

By Mary Carole McCauley

Sun reporter

June 21, 2007

According to Shakespeare's text, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has reached the age of 30 and is a grown man. I suppose the author should know how old his own characters are, but I've always thought that what the Bard really crafted is a canny, dead-on portrait of a boy at least a decade younger.

Hamlet is hyper-sensitive to slights to his nascent manhood. He is utterly self-absorbed, chafes at authority and is clueless about women. He runs hot one minute, cold the next. In other words, an adolescent.

Jeffrey Carlson brings out every immature, bratty aspect of the character in a tour-de-force performance running at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington.

His Hamlet isn't so much indecisive as he is impulsive, beset by so many strong, warring urges that they immobilize him. It is these conflicting passions, as much as anything, that results in tragedy. The actor slumps, slouches, sulks, postures, pouts and flings himself around the stage. At one point, he even has a legs-kicking tantrum on the floor.

Carlson even sits down like a teenager. Instead of an adult's smooth, purposeful motion, the actor's legs buckle abruptly and seemingly of their own accord. Suddenly, the prince finds himself on the sofa - and promptly drags his big, smelly feet all over the castle's best furniture.

In contrast, Robert Cuccioli's virile Claudius is a model of restraint. He must truly love his nephew. Otherwise, he would have begun plotting his demise far earlier, and with far less provocation, than he actually does.

As is true with virtually all productions directed by Michael Kahn, the cast speaks Shakespearean English flawlessly. The words enter our ears so gently, and their meaning flows to our brains so smoothly, we forget this is supposed to be hard work.

It's not that the audience's attention never flags. Even judiciously trimmed, the running time is three hours, 15 minutes. But barely have we begun to mentally wander off the ranch when our thoughts are herded back onto the designated path by actors as vigilant and sharp-eyed as sheepdogs.

In particular, Ted van Griethuysen's good ole boy of a gravedigger is a small miracle. Every utterance is crystal-clear; every nuance, every inflection is immediately recognizable. You can practically see the character astride a motorcycle.

The contemporary dress production contains some subtle jokes. And the castle's decorating style is (what else?) Danish modern. And, when two of Hamlet's childhood chums first take the stage, they ostentatiously toss a coin - a witty reference to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a much-performed modern update by Tom Stoppard.

Walt Spangler's scenic design and Charlie Morrison's lighting do much to set the mood.

Spangler envisages an abstract interior, with glass corridors overhung with branches. His mammoth, icelike blocks create a damaging, seductive illusion of transparency. Even during the day, even at high noon, the very air is filled with fog.

And, if you look carefully, those branches are hanging upside down. It's not actual trees that we're seeing, but a reflection from a river or lake. It must have been the view that Ophelia saw right before she fell in and drowned.


Copyright 2007, The Baltimore Sun

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