Saturday, November 24, 2001

We have “The Internet for Dummies,” “House-buying for Dummies” and “Windows for Dummies.” The Shakespeare Theatre’s production, which telegraphs everything just in case you never have heard of the Melancholy Dane, could be called “Hamlet for Dummies.”
The staging is about as subtle as a cudgel. In the unlikely event you might miss the sexual connection between Hamlet (Wallace Acton) and his mother Gertrude (Sybil Lines), her bed is crimson velvet and ringed with nightie-like red curtains. Some death scenes are accompanied by “eee-eee-eee-eee” sounds straight out of “Psycho.” Many of the actors shout their lines, perhaps to stir up energy, but it appears that what is rotten in Denmark is actually a kingdomwide hearing problem.
Speaking of “Psycho,” you know you’re in trouble when aspects of director Gale Edwards’ production reminds you of something in the movies. Poor Ted van Griethuysen is forced to play Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle and Gertrude’s hasty husband) saddled with a bald pate, jacket and silver vest that makes him a dead ringer for Dr. Evil in “Austin Powers.” Mr. Van Griethuysen is excellent as usual, but the similarity is so pervasive you half-expect him to dispense with Hamlet using Mini-Me.
The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father (Edward Gero) is garbed to look like Darth Vader, and he kinda sounds like him, too. While Nicole Lawrance is sweet and spirited as Ophelia, her mad scene is marred by a wig and makeup that makes you think of Helena Bonham-Carter in one of her heroin-chic film roles.
You shouldn’t keep coming up with movie references during “Hamlet,” but you can’t help it. As lordly and affecting as Mr. Acton is as Hamlet, his sometimes bratty behavior recalls Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange.” With his tousled blond hair, and fitted frock coats, Mr. Acton also reminds you of the rock-star Sting.
Yes, there are pop culture references galore in “Hamlet,” but once you get past the attempts to make the play topical, what is there? Nothing really, except a lot of empty excesses.
Luckily, the hurly-burly dies down during Hamlet’s soliloquies, when Mr. Acton uses nothing but his supple voice and gestures to reveal to us the quicksilver states of the prince’s mind. He delivers the famous speeches with a divine naturalness conversational, yet profound.
Rather than playing up the Oedipal relationship between mother and son, Miss Lines pretty much ignores the crimson bed-imagery to give us a Gertrude of dignity and nuance. Gertrude seems truly shocked when she learns that Claudius murdered her first husband; and she is traumatized anew after Hamlet visits her bedroom and she witnesses his own violent side.
The most lovely scene in the production is oddly the most artificial. It involves the Players, a traveling acting troupe hired by Hamlet to put on a play about the murder in an effort to trap Claudius. Led by Mr. Gero, Jason Gilbert, Emery Battis and the other players reach a magic and eloquence using greasepaint and worn props that the rest of the show never achieves.

WHAT: “Hamlet”
WHEN: Tuesdays through Sundays, through Jan. 6
WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW
TICKETS: $15.50-$64
PHONE: 202/547-1122

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