Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Hamlet (John Douglas Thompson, right) is visited by the Ghost of his father (Steven Anthony Jones) | Photo: Kevin Berne

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Hamlet's world is our world.

Directed by Carey Perloff
Starring John Douglas Thompson
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, until October 15, 2017
http://www.act-sf.org/

ACT’s new production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is a long evening, with moments of poetry and power interlaced with periods of static and sluggishness. John Douglas Thompson is often mesmerizing as the Danish Prince Hamlet, and he is supported by a mostly skillful cast. Yet, despite ACT’s Artistic Director, Carey Perloff’s generally capable direction, the overall effect is uneven in pacing and quality.

Set in medieval Denmark, the well-told tale begins when the ghost of the king (Prince Hamlet’s father), tells his son that Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Steven Anthony Jones) has murdered him, seized his throne, and married the king’s widow, Gertrude (Dominique Lozano). The drama involves Prince Hamlet’s revenge on Claudius for his evil deeds and the spiraling cost to all involved. The plot has the makings of a typical revenge play, but the exploration of Hamlet’s psychology and inner life, as well as the poetry of the play, makes “Hamlet” one of Shakespeare’s extraordinary events.

The ACT production is a rather traditional rendition of the tragedy, except for the 21st century dress (Hamlet in a tee shirt), and the post-modern, deconstructed stage set, which inexplicitly and unnecessarily contains a shower. Although “Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest play (4,024 lines, which would take about four hours to perform), ACT’s version has been edited to about three hours plus one intermission. Yet, to keep today’s audience’s short attention span engaged, perhaps more should have been cut to avoid some lulls in the drama.

As Hamlet, John Douglas Thompson (“Satchmo at the Waldorf,” Broadway’s “Jitney”) is largely expressive, articulate and emotionally effective. His soliloquies are just right — neither overly emotive nor blandly delivered. In the scenes between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, Thompson is movingly tender to her, her suspected treachery notwithstanding. Yet the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia (Rivka Borek) is more awkward than the text of the drama would warrant. Perhaps it is because Thompson is older than those who often play the young Prince.

Rivka Borek is moving as Ophelia. However, her appearance on stage in her underwear at one point, an indication of her crazed lack of modesty, seems uncomfortable and anti-feminist. Claudius (Stephen Anthony Jones), dressed in a velvet smoking jacket, more closely resembles Old King Cole in costume and attitude than a crafty murdering king. Other members of the supporting cast did their jobs, although it was sometimes difficult to hear Anthony Fusco as Horatio.

One of the reasons that Carey Perloff wanted to produce “Hamlet” this season was because of Donald Trump’s election. She said, “I could see the landscape of a prince who goes to sleep in an ordered kingdom and wakes up in a world where everything is fake news and nothing is to be trusted.” And yes, this is Hamlet’s world, as it is our world. Still, “Hamlet” is worth seeing much more for John Douglas Thompson’s outstanding performance, than any political message that is conveyed to the audience.

Emily S. Mendel
emilymendel@gmail.com
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,

Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.