- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

What a piece of work is Karl Miller — infinite in variety and youthful invention in his portrayal of Hamlet, the conflicted prince of Denmark. His hotheaded, fixated, dervish-like turn in the notoriously difficult role is the chief attraction for Rep Stage’s persuasive production of “Hamlet” under the shrewd direction of Kasi Campbell.

Miss Campbell has assembled a youth-driven “Hamlet,” ablaze with fresh-faced actors who give the play a sense of immediacy and rash action. Aside from the grave poise of Nigel Reed as the king, Claudius, and Valerie Leonard as his queen, Gertrude, this “Hamlet” looks and feels green and raw, and is plainly meant for the blogger set — although those with short attention spans might chafe at a running time of more than three hours. Tony Cisek’s set, however, is pleasingly old school — an expanse of rough stone and fog with a grave-shaped hole in the floor.

Older theatergoers might want to remind the fidgety that a full-fledged production of “Hamlet” runs at least an hour longer. Still, even with the cuts Rep Stage’s “Hamlet” can seem lengthy and drawn out, especially in the first act. Many of the juiciest scenes and the lion’s share of the carnage occur in the second half, and it can be an arduous slog toward the high-body-count climax.

A couple of missteps in casting also keep this “Hamlet” from achieving true transcendence. Kathleen Coons, so effective in last season’s “Mary’s Wedding” and other works at the Theater Alliance, is a shrieky Ophelia, who comes across as so ordinary and unformed in the beginning of the play that you wonder just what Hamlet sees in her. When the murder of her father, Polonius (Lawrence Redmond), and Hamlet’s callous, calculated treatment drives Ophelia mad, her insanity seems baseless — she appears to be lashing out willy-nilly rather than reacting out of a deep well of grief and confusion. Daniel Frith, as her brother, Laertes, suffers from a similar transparency — he responds to most situations with a squeaky-voiced peevishness than suggests spoiled brat more than vengeful leader.

It has been said that “Hamlet” is a reflective philosophical work revealing the inner workings of Hamlet’s mind as he moves from intellectual introspection to action, from free thought to embracing his destiny and mortality. Hamlet is forced to move from the sidelines after he returns to Elsinore from college only to find his mother hastily married to his uncle and the ghost of his murdered father restlessly roaming the castle and demanding revenge.

Not much chance for musing here, as time is of the essence in Rep Stage’s “Hamlet” and the emphasis is placed on forward movement. The characters seem to be acting out of instinct rather than rational thought; Hamlet among them. The famous soliloquies are mostly dashed off in haste, as if Hamlet is plowing through his e-mails before trying to make an urgent appointment. Except for the “to be, or not to be” speech performed with a certain insightful languor in an open grave, Mr. Miller races through his lines, which gives Hamlet frantic energy but not much gravity.

The brashness works sometimes, particularly when Hamlet cajoles a group of traveling players to interject an incendiary and damning scene into their usual repertoire. The high energy also ratchets up into a corporeal sense of terror when Hamlet meets his father’s ghost and is rigid with fear in this ghoulish embrace.

The only characters who seem to pause for thought are Aubrey Deeker as a quietly reflective — and effective — Horatio, and Mr. Redmond as the carefully decorous Polonius. On the other end of the spectrum, James Flanagan and Brandon McCoy cook up moments of virtuoso clowning as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Mr. Miller makes a good Hamlet, but the play demands a great one, and maybe he will be once he settles down into the role. Unlike other, more meditative productions, Miss Campbell’s take on the play is all outer-directed, which gives the production surface energy that quickly dissipates into thin air.

***

WHAT: “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Rep Stage, Howard County Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 9.

TICKETS: $21 to $12

PHONE: 410/772-4900

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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