SANTA MARIA — The PCPA Theaterfest "Hamlet" that has opened here comes to us predestined, so to speak.
Theaterfest's new artistic director Vincent Dowling (who staged it) announced some time ago that he intends it to become an annual tradition--a "Hamlet" each year wherein a different actor will play the title role. Logically, it is to coincide with Danish Days in Solvang, the other city where the Theaterfest plays.
All of which makes sense. But if Dowling wants to stir up the sort of excitement that--as stated in a program note--will make theatergoers wonder each year who is "to be or not to be Hamlet at PCPA Theaterfest," he also will have to make the surrounding production appropriately distinctive.
This year's is not. It's a perplexing mix of strengths and weaknesses--strongest where it matters most, as (with reservations) in the central performance by David Birney; lazy where it should be easiest to make an impression, as in basic staging effects, lighting, directorial choices and, significantly, at least one bit of important casting.
Starting with Scene 1, a false tone is set when, on the battlements, waiting for the ghost of Hamlet's father, there is almost no experience of dread or cold or the impending supernatural. And when the ghost appears, it speaks in a recorded voice so flat and hurried that it's hard to listen to and defeats any attempt at awesomeness.
These flawed atmospheric trappings go unaided by lights that also won't cooperate. When the soldiers tell us morning is breaking, we remain plunged in murk. Worse, when the ghost needs to disappear, we go to full blackout so he can scamper off--as clumsy an exit as it is possible to imagine. And when we move to the next scene (a skimpy court in full attendance) a mysterious smoke infiltrates the room. Fog, presumably, that failed to kick off in the first scene.
This last goof is an honest one that can happen anywhere. More troubling is the other sort of neglect that extends to puzzling choices and makeshift casting. How else does one explain the quintessentially non-dashing John Greenleaf in the role of the dashing Laertes?
In contrast to the excellent Bernard Kates, who turns in the most intelligent and appealing Polonius in recent memory, this Laertes is much more of a dullard than his haranguing father. No wonder Polonius finds it necessary to read him the ABCs of appropriate behavior; he looks as if he needs them.
This is also a "Hamlet" of surprising muscle. In Tina Marie Goff it has one of the freshest and most unexpected Ophelias. Goff is an actress who commands attention while standing absolutely still. Tall and stately, she seems to defy the character's fragility, yet her language is as clear as it is heartbreaking and her passion for Hamlet so visibly intense that the nunnery scene becomes--as it so rarely does--a cognizant preamble to the personal tragedy that follows.
One could go on and on with the bewildering contrasts: a Fortinbras (Andy Philpot) who sounds like he just stepped in from the barn; a beautifully differentiated Rosencrantz (Fred Thompson) and Guildenstern (Jonathan Gillard); rag-tag soldiers who look like the dregs of a reluctant army; Robert Elliott, strong, simple, warm as the Player King. A well-paired, physically commanding Gertrude (Diana Douglas) and Claudius (Darrell Sandeen)--and Birney, with his own glossy set of contradictions.
Afflicted by the same slow start as the rest of the show, Birney blossoms into a splendid Hamlet whenever he remembers to forget that he's a TV matinee idol.
This subtly intrusive self-awareness surfaces mostly in scenes that are awkwardly staged to begin with, but it does ruin spontaneity. In his soliloquies, or when he gets solid support--as from Ophelia, Horatio, Polonius, Rosencrantz/Guildenstern (especially in the brilliantly staged palace chase, after the play-within-the-play, where Dowling has Hamlet goading his pursuers by echoing their own cries for "Hamlet!")--he's witty, forceful, dynamic, yet still touching. There's nothing wrong with the performance that thinking less won't cure.
Finally, a word of commendation for the intimately suspenseful fight choreography devised by J.R. Beardsley. It is first-class.
Director Dowling's own contributions are mixed, ranging from the cleverness of the chase scene to awkward entrances and exits, a delayed reaction from Claudius/Polonius to the nunnery scene (they remain behind the curtain for what seems an eternity) and an emphasis more, it feels, on getting through than getting good.
Production values suffer a similar fate, from D. Martyn Bookwalter's vaulting unit set that in part mimics the levels and roundness of Shakespeare's Globe, to his own much less inspired lighting and misfired effects. Costumes could be richer, too, but will do. However, if this is intended to become a flagship "Hamlet," a good deal of cleanup work lies ahead.
Performances in Santa Maria continue and an opening in Solvang Wednesday will be preceded at 5 p.m. by "Floodgate," a new one-man play by James Buchanan about the actor Edwin Booth. It will be directed by Ben Cooper and feature Gillard, who plays Guildenstern in "Hamlet." (805-922-8313)