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Hamlet Goes Steampunk With the Trebuchet Players

The set-up:

The fledgling troupe Trebuchet Players, opened 16 months ago with a production of William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, and now tackles Shakespeare's Hamlet, a tragedy famously difficult but, perhaps for that reason, a lodestone to actors. Since Hamlet has been produced so often, many contemporary productions add a fresh slant to the goings on, and Trebuchet Players joins the parade by adding elements of "steampunk" to the costuming, referencing elements from the 19th century industrial revolution.

The execution:

The steampunk element adds little of genuine interest, but doesn't get in the way of a strong narrative of revenge and personal strife. The staging has elements of a carnival, and the simple but effective set begins as a circus-like circular arena composed of eight crescents that together form the circle, and that can be re-arranged in a variety of sitting and playing areas.

The very good news is that Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and the leading character, is portrayed by Aaron Echegaray, in an exciting and vivid characterization that captures the self-confidence of a prince, the wit of an intellectual, and the showmanship of a circus ringmaster. When he is onstage, fortunately often, electricity crackles, and when he is not, as in the first part of the second of two acts, the momentum sags. Echegaray has sensed that the carnival setting requires a bravura performance style - and provides it with authority and power.

Jonathan Gonzalez plays Claudius, new king of Denmark, who has murdered his brother, Hamlet's father, usurped his crown, and wed his widow, all within a month. He is an assassin, and a regicide, and one might expect a sense of deep evil hidden by a velvet glove and a silken tongue, but Gonzalez fails to convey this. Cheryl Tanner plays Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, who has retained her crown and as bride to the new king, might be delighted to have weathered the storm, but she simply looks unhappy.

Clarity Welch as Ophelia has carnival clown makeup around her eyes, so the choice to follow through and vary the usual ethereal characterization, portraying her instead as earthy and robust, is wise. In her mad scene, two additional female actors represented, at least to me, the alter egos of a madwoman. Kathy Drum directed the play, and this particular touch was intriguing.

Michael Raabe plays Polonius as a man of action, despite the platitudinous nature of his homilies, and less a wise and shrewd counselor. Wade Consoulin is excellent as the ghost of Hamlet's father, though his costume, complete with ball and chain, makes him look like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from A Christmas Carol. Rosencrantz (Chelsea Curto) and Guildenstern (Sam Martinez) enter apparently joined at the shoulder as though Siamese twins, a visual joke that works well on their first appearance, but less well as it is repeated.

Laertes is portrayed by a female actor, Sarah Heddins, who is athletic and poised, but I couldn't find any enhancement in this directorial choice, good as Heddins is. Julie Oliver played the gravedigger, who is a sly humorist parsing language at the expense of his betters, but I didn't see her joy in the wit.

Some of the downstage lighting at either side leaves actors playing there in darkness, but this is a pleasantly intimate venue, and a few sacrifices for the rich involvement is a good trade-off. I sensed that director Drum worked to add vitality, scene by scene, and succeeded in many scenes. But the carnival mood ¬escaped most actors and, if not universal, why employ steampunk at all?

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There are a great number of short scenes, and the eight seating segments are rearranged, to no real purpose, and unnecessarily, for each scene change, stopping the tragedy's momentum dead in its tracks. The event is produced by Tyrrell Woolbert, one of the founders of Trebuchet Players.

The verdict:

A new and talented troupe updates a famed classic, with the changes not adding much but not seriously impairing the driving power of a revenge play with the force of a juggernaut, fueled by a remarkable, stunning performance of Aaron Echevaray in the title role.

Hamlet continues through December 14, from Trebuchet Players at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information or ticketing, call 318-423-0281 or contact www.trebuchetplayers.org.

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