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A CurtainUp Review
While the powerful tragedy remains the odds-on favorite for Greatest Play Ever Written, it has internal issues. At over three hours, if uncut, it's too long for modern patience. Some versions serve the Bard poorly, but such is not the case at the Lantern Theater Company, where the reset button has been pushed and the melancholy prince has been re-energized. Not at all an academic exercise. Director Charles McMahon keeps the play moving along at a clip, and Geoff Sobelle brings intelligence and high voltage energy to the lead role.
To digress for a moment, I must explain that I had to double check when I saw his name listed as Hamlet in Lantern's PR material, thinking I'd read it wrong. Sobelle, a gifted actor, co-artistic director of rainpan 43 and a Pig Iron company member, did appear in Lantern's landmark Comedy of Errors a few years back (a masterpiece of comic physical theatre, but no tragedy). But he comes from a different theatrical terrain, the land of Annesia Curiosa, all wear bowlers, Chekhov Lizardbrain, and Hell Meets Henry Halfway, to give some idea of his absurdist-comic experimental background. (Note: rainpan 43's machines machines machines machines machines machines machines is coming to NY's HERE arts space, June 2-27).
If Sobelle is not among the first hundred actors you'd think of to play the role, you'd wonder: What's his Hamlet like? Well, he doesn't indulge in a whole lot of brooding and indecision. Dexterous and spontaneous, he'll deal in introspection long enough to reveal Hamlet's essential alienation and then climb scaffolding like it's monkey bars and throw himself on the floor, as if perhaps hyperactivity were a metaphor for cleverness. Somehow the Dane's subversive, cerebral qualities are not affected by his antic physicality, nor are his underlying purposes diminished.
In a way this show is more akin to the star centered plays of Garrick's era than to today's fashion of ensemble theater. Sobelle's acting style contrasts with that of the other actors and puts him on a different plane. His behavior is understandable for a mad prince, but even when not feigning madness it's as if he's part of a different play. Which is not to say he's not really, really good at what he's doing. But in a more integrated production, other actors, perhaps those playing sentries, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, or Ophelia might join Sobelle in his exaggerated physical style. Yet some roles work very well played against that technique, and Dan Hodge's rather stiff, scholarly Horatio provides a foil to his friend's behavior.
The director's savvy shows in the details. For example, McMahon breaks for intermission with Hamlet's dagger poised over Claudius at prayer, just before the end of Act III, Scene III. Great B-movie, cliff hanger timing. Only when the show resumes at the same spot does Hamlet reconsider sending the man to heaven. For speed and clarity many of the play's passages and lines have been excised. Just about every director is going to edit Hamlet, but many would not be made of stern enough stuff to cut Horatio's "flights of angels" among other notable missing pieces.
Sobelle's "Get thee to a nunnery" scene is absolutely inspired. Melissa Dunphy's sweet, timid Ophelia works well here too, although later her mad scenes are more like a teenager acting-out in a hormone attack than Ophelia-level madness. Gertrude (multitalented, humorous Mary Martello), like Hamlet, is cast against expectations. This matronly Gertrude, preoccupied with Claudius, lacks the brittle-edged theatricality the character sometimes will have. Tim Moyer is an engaging Polonius; however, while it is not unusual for the Polonius actor to also play the gravedigger, it is a good idea to have him camouflaged for the role. Here a very recognizable Polonius, back from the dead, appears to be hanging about in a churchyard. It would be a believable event in a play with questions about illusion and reality and a lurking dead king. It is possibly confusing for new audiences, and this evening's audience included a lot of teenagers, as the show is part of the Shakespeare for a New Generation initiative.
The play is presented in the modest performing space at St. Stephen's Theater with 3/4 surround seating. The plain set is constructed of metal scaffolding with a wood platform off to one side. Due to space limitations, a few entrances and exits are made from directions that don't compute, and the costuming looks haphazard, from the royals' bulky gold robes to Hamlet's wrinkled, nondescript black getups to Ophelia's one dress that looks like it came off the rack at a mall store. But despite a few issues like these, the production works well. Nick Rye's sound design, with its powerful sounds and odd little graveyard noises is curious and effective, just as the unusual directorial approach to the material is rewarding.
Shakespeare buffs, Hamlet groupies, and anyone who appreciates vitally alive theater will enjoy the humor, intelligence, and fresh approach of the Lantern's Hamlet.