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Theater Review

This 'Hamlet' Intensifies Identity Issues

Making the title character a woman, and lesbian, turns out to be a solid starting point.

August 29, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

"What is between you? Give me up the truth." Thus the meddling fool Polonius demands an answer of his daughter, Ophelia, who has "very oft of late" been seen with Hamlet--the princess of Denmark.

Since its first performance, with men taking the female parts along with the male ones, Shakespeare's revenge tragedy has posed gender-identity puzzles right and left. So in a sense, director Kevin Cochran's conceptually easygoing but straightforwardly lesbian "Hamlet" is nothing new.

The Grove Theater Center production is, however, generally absorbing. It's more than a gimmick. Its 11-person cast gallops through a two-hour, 20-minute cutting of the play.

The swiftness helps disguise some extremely uneven acting, ranging stylistically all over two or three maps. Like so many guy "Hamlets" throughout the centuries, this staging loses steam for an act-and-a-half or so (out of the original five), following the play-within-the-play, wherein Hamlet catches the venal king's conscience with a little homemade dramaturgy.

What elevates the play above its pulp origins--everything "off the plot," everything feeding Hamlet's internal, shadowy complexity--also makes it tricky. In the title role, the talented Jane Macfie often settles for surface angst and grimaces. Yet it's no bore, this show. Closing its Garden Grove Festival Amphitheatre engagement last weekend, reopening in Fullerton Sept. 7 for a 10-day run, Cochran's production has a notion or two up its modern-dress sleeve.

Here, definitively, is the Hamlet most likely to benefit from a copy of "Reviving Ophelia."

When first we see Macfie, Hamlet is a soul in crisis, squatting in the right-hand corner of the stage, her "inky cloak" making her look like a typical "Daria" fan. But the play's circumstances--mysterious death of father, rapid remarriage of mother to uncle--do not put Hamlet in a laughing mood. And in this context, lines such as "Man delights not me" underscore this production's premise: Hamlet's a smart, angry woman in love with an unusually strapping Ophelia (Melenie Flynn), a situation acknowledged uneasily by Hamlet's deeply political clan. (You know, like the Cheneys.)

When Macfie's Hamlet spits out "Get thee to a nunnery" to her conflicted love object, there's no venom in it; it's more a cry from a hurting heart. Here Macfie is at her best, propelling this scene with real skill. She gets only so much help from Flynn's gape-mouthed Ophelia, who hasn't figured a way to make lines such as "My brother shall know of this" without whining.

David Allen Jones tilts the scale the other way, with a shrewdly spoken and insinuatingly contained Claudius. (He's an effective ghost of Hamlet's father as well, though his white-hooded parka looks a little too "Ice Station Zebra.") Patricia Boyette's Gertrude has a regal, troubled air, nicely modulated. Gender-bending to suit the concept, this "Hamlet" offers a female Rosencrantz (Kari Nissena) and Guildenstern (Rebekah Brown), along with a female First Player (Terra Shelman), one of only two strolling actors elicited by Hamlet.

Director Cochran designed the granite-slabs unit set, a sharp one, dominated by eight swiveling and mirrored panels. This allows for much mirror imagery, a la the Derek Jacobi/Kenneth Branagh cat-and-mouse sequence in Branagh's "Hamlet." There's a strong musical score too, by David C. DiIorio, evoking moody science-fiction filmic flourishes, stopping short of bombast.

Little bombast anywhere, in fact. This isn't a brain-rattling "Hamlet." Its virtues are speed and compactness. And while the notion's not fully fleshed out--as of last weekend, Howard DeWitt's Polonius seemed flummoxed and uncertain in flummoxed and uncertain ways--a Danish princess turns out to be a pretty sound starting point for this endlessly durable story.

* "Hamlet," Grove Theater Center on the Green at Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. Thursdays-Sundays, 8:15 p.m., Sept. 7-17. $20.50-$24.50. (714) 741-9555. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Jane Macfie: Hamlet

David Allen Jones: Claudius/Ghost

Melenie Flynn: Ophelia

Jeff Goldman: Horatio

Patricia Boyette: Gertrude

Jake Austin: Laertes

Howard DeWitt: Polonius/Grave-Maker

Kari Nissena: Rosencrantz

Rebekah Brown: Guildenstern

Jason Unfried: Bernardo/Second Player/Asst. Grave-Maker

Terra Shelman: Marcellus/First Player/Osric

Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Kevin Cochran. Scenic design by Kevin Cochran. Costumes by Leonard Ogden. Lighting by David Darwin. Music by David C. DiIorio. Fight director Payson Burt.

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