- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Ghostly apparitions. Murder most foul. An incestuous marriage. Two-timing friends and assorted scoundrels. A dictatorial king with a mind like a mafia chieftain’s. Rapiers and rapierlike wit. And a confused young hero who somehow must set everything right. William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is back in town, courtesy of the Shakespeare Theatre, which has revived its 2002 production of the play for this year’s “Free for All” at the District’s venerable Carter Barron Amphitheatre.

Set against a haunting backdrop of Stonehenge-like monoliths beginning to topple like giant dominoes, this production, imaginatively directed by Gale Edwards, is staged as a postmodern apocalypse dressed in the somber and leathery grays so predictably fashionable these days in both drama and opera. But no matter. Within minutes, some of the most brilliant ensemble acting in memory whisks the audience into the heart and soul of another world, another era. The poetry throbs, the emotions burn. This “Hamlet” lives and breathes as few ever have done.

Encountering this classic drama al fresco in the darkening forest edge of Rock Creek Park adds to its atmosphere of psychological isolation and gloom. As the ghost of Hamlet’s father materialized repeatedly during last Friday’s performance, plunging vengefully through the acrid mists generated by the company’s hyperactive smoke machine, a lone bat fluttered frantically about the stadium lights, remorselessly snagging hapless insects, bequeathing a bit of unscripted primal authenticity upon the dramatic turmoil below.

“Hamlet” is planted firmly within the Renaissance and Elizabethan tradition of revenge tragedy, best exemplified by Thomas Kyd’s gore fest “The Spanish Tragedy” and the Bard’s own perfectly dreadful “Titus Andronicus,” with which he might have had some help.

Revenge tragedies typically contain one or more gruesomely unjust murders that motivate the avenger, leading to a buildup of frustration, an elaborate plot and a final cathartic bloodbath that sets the moral universe right. The genre has remained enduringly popular in a multitude of forms continuing into the present era, which boasts classic revengers such as Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” — even the elaborately staged morality plays scripted for WWF Championship Wrestling.

“Hamlet” is in many ways a thinking man’s revenge tragedy. This brooding prince is no monosyllabic Rambo. He is a young student, an intellectual, a dreamer. When confronted by a supernatural apparition that presents him with a moral dilemma, he dithers, he wavers. His worst suspicions — his father slain by his stepfather — confirmed … but by a ghost? Where is the logic? The philosopher in him requires more proof, even as his passions demand the ultimate outcome: explosive violence that wipes the moral slate clean.

It is hard to imagine a better modern Hamlet than Wallace Acton. With his manic post-punk coiffure, he is not an actor playing Hamlet. He is Hamlet. Having intuited Shakespeare’s every nuance and linguistic trick, Mr. Acton transforms mere words into a believable modern character of outstanding pathos and complexity. Even in the highly unpleasant scene in which he literally brutalizes the hapless Ophelia for mere effect, we can sense the raging internal conflict, the anguish in his heart, first suspended, then brought to a culmination much later in the graveyard scene, in which he gives full vent to his repressed grief. When, amidst a large audience in an open venue, you can hear a pin drop, you know the magic is happening.

As strong as Mr. Acton’s performance is, however, it would be for naught were it not for the outstanding cast that surrounds him. Danyon Davis’ portrayal of Horatio as a priggish philosopher and loyal friend is refreshingly different, as are Gregory Simmons’ and Anthony Hagopian’s scheming, oily Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Peter Katona’s fiery Laertes literally and figuratively serves as the perfect foil for the troubled and complex Hamlet. Dee Pelletier as the hapless Gertrude and Nicole Lowrance as the much-put-upon Ophelia maintain strength of character even as they see a vengeful male universe crumbling their worlds around them. And Andrew Long as the nefarious Claudius gradually reveals his villainous self as his facade of statesmanship crumbles, exposing the true character of an unrepentant, power-mad mass murderer.

The surprise revelation here, though, is David Sabin. His Polonius is perhaps the first in this reviewer’s memory to be fully realized as a human being. Here is not the usual, two-dimensional, humorous caricature, but an endearing flesh-and-blood father. A little dotty perhaps, definitely afflicted with terminal verbosity, but dedicated, willing to help and, in the end, done in by a foolish fondness for his children and for life. When he is dispatched untimely by Hamlet, his death is rightly tragic, not just the gratuitous knifing it often seems to be. It is a moving portrayal, indeed, of a character who does not often inspire admiration.

For the price, the Shakespeare Theatre’s open-air “Hamlet” is clearly the best bargain in town this weekend. It’s a boffo production of one of the world’s greatest literary masterpieces by a cast that well and truly knows how to make the magic happen.

Opening night’s substantial crowd also was treated to a warm and rainless evening, the first, it seems, in recent memory. Ecstatic at their good fortune and in a festive mood — many with children in tow — they hauled in the first picnics of the season, tote bags and occasional baskets brimming with interesting goodies — sans wine and brewskis, which are prohibited by the National Park Service in this venue. (Post-September 11, all bags are checked before you go through the turnstiles.) The weather forecasters promise more breaks in the weather this weekend, so forget the nunnery and get thee instead to the box office.

And watch out for that bat.

****

WHAT: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

WHO: The Shakespeare Theatre

WHERE: Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., through Sunday

INFORMATION: http://www.shakespearetheatre.org

TICKETS: Free tickets are available the day of the performance at these locations:

The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW (Tuesdays through Sundays beginning at noon)

The Carter Barron Amphitheatre Box Office, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW (Tuesdays through Sundays beginning at noon)

The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW (Tuesdays through Fridays beginning at 8:30 a.m.)

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