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A Trimmed Hamlet Scraps the Dagger For a Gun

The set-up:

The Classical Theatre Company tackles William Shakespeare's longest play in an adaptation by Artistic Director John Johnston that trims it to manageable size, while retaining the essential plot and structure, and the famous passages. There is no single way to present Hamlet, and no agreed-upon interpretation of the character of Hamlet, so the director's challenge is usually to find a presentation that in some way illuminates the play, or the character, or finds a way to relate it to contemporary life to heighten its relevance.

Though the staging here is contemporary, in modern dress, with a gun instead of a dagger, this production otherwise is a straightforward presentation of a revenge drama, relying on the power of Hamlet's existential musings on life, and the melodramatic events themselves, to propel it forward. (There is a brief opening suggestion that the castle is under electronic surveillance, but this theme is dropped rather than pursued.)

The execution:

Matthew Keenan portrays Hamlet, and provides an understated, plausible interpretation, sparked by flashes of humor and charm. He looks the part - thankfully, we are not required to see an ancient thespian playing a student - and moves eloquently. He husbands his emotional life, as would a conspirator against a kingdom, but there are missed opportunities as well. Hamlet's reference to his father "He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again", which can resonate with a deep sense of love, and loss, is delivered flatly, as though it were a throwaway line, providing an early warning that this production would favor action over poetry. Keenan's plays Hamlet as a man of action, though contemplative in nature, which is true to the script, and Keenan provides an engaging, and admirable portrayal.

John Johnston directed, and has set some scenes with brutality - Polonius manhandling his daughter Ophelia seemed an exceptionally novel treatment. Ralph Ehntholt portrays Polonius as a bully, and Hamlet's brutal throttling of Guildenstern (here, a woman, played by Amy Buchanan) signaled that the director was going for the effects that a vivid vignette can generate. The mad scene of Ophelia (Joanna Hubbard), usually played for heart-breaking poignancy, is here closer to a scene from Zombie Prom, and is ugly indeed, as intended by the director.

As Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, Christianne Mays is beautiful and elegant, and brings authenticity, power, and emotional depth to the role. As Claudius, who has poisoned his brother the king (Hamlet's father), married his widow, and usurped the throne, Rutherford Cravens brings none of the coloring of evil, or grandeur, or naked ambition but seems stolid, and not especially interesting. Jarred Tettey plays Horatio, Hamlet's friend and is quite good, and has an affinity for the rhythm of the lines. Kirk Ellis plays Osric, and delivers well the inherent humor in his key scene. Rosencrantz is portrayed by Jeff McMorrough as phlegmatic, and seemingly bewildered by the goings-on. Ted Doolittle is excellent as the gravedigger. As Laertes, brother to Ophelia, Dain Geist is good, though some of the facial expressions might be less of a grimace.

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There are memorable highlights, thanks to Johnston's deft direction; these include the subtle and shadowy ghostly appearance of the apparition of the slain king, the humorous graveyard scene, and the lengthy dueling scene, done about as well as it could be, with terrific assistance from Luke Fedell as fight director. And, yes, even the throttling of Guildenstern, mystifying as it is, turns out to be unforgettable.

The multi-tiered set by Jodi Bobrovsky is painted orange and blue, with pipe-fitting railings, and seemed a cross between a large houseboat and a studio for a television game show. While it added no ambience, it functions well, and provides a variety of playing areas. Elizabeth Jordan is dramaturg, and she and director Johnston might consider whether Hamlet should point a gun at his head as he utters the words "a bare bodkin", which is a dagger.

The verdict:

The narrative and power of this famous play emerges intact in this solid adaptation, and strong performances, especially from Matthew Keenan as Hamlet, add vitality, creating riveting theater. Hamlet continues through September 29, from the Classical Theatre Company, at The Barn (formerly Barnevelder), 2201 Preston. For information or ticketing, call 713-963- 9665 or contact classicaltheatre.org.

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