As its hero challenges thespians, so "Hamlet" challenges historians. Though Shakespeare likely borrowed Francois de Belleforest's 1570 "Histoires tragiques," itself an adaptation of Icelandic lore, the general scenario of Denmark's usurped prince appears in various guises from before 1586 to 1602. The year 1603 brought the First Quarto, possibly recounted from memory by the original Marcellus. The Second Quarto of 1604 is usually considered truer to Shakespeare's intent, with the First Folio of 1623 including his revisions.
Yet the discredited edition is the text that director Andrew Borba and his driven players explore. The designs are cunning, especially Rob Oriol's dense lighting and Lauren Helpern's brooding set. Yet the brisker narrative and arcane distinctions (Polonius is Corambis, Ophelia becomes Ofelia, etc.) don't compensate for the paucity of profundity and poetry.
In fairness, Borba's stylistic overload and erratic attack obscure qualitative First Quarto assessment. His actors risk coronary thrombosis, but their exertions pile Ossa upon Pelion. Borba casts actress Alina Phelan as Hamlet, and her enervated work is less about character insight than performance anxiety.
She isn't alone. Barring Ezra Buzzington's Hume Cronyn-tinged Corambis and First Gravedigger Carolyn Hennesy's understated Gertred, and the various cameos by Alan Loayza, Justin Brinsfield and Elizabeth Liang, the cast displays grandiose histrionics at the expense of comprehensive portrayals.
It's a speedier trip to the graveyard than usual, and scholars and novices may be interested, but audiences located between such extremes may find this honorable disinterment an inconclusive curiosity, alas.
"Hamlet: The First Quarto," Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays--Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 6. $15. (323) 856-8611. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
The 'Men' were better as 'Boys'
"The Boys in the Band" predated the Stonewall riot -- the flash point of the gay rights movement -- by a year. It was a brave play for 1968, vividly juxtaposing societal abhorrence and gay self-hatred against a growing desire to live and love openly.
A long-anticipated sequel, "The Men From the Boys," is receiving its Southern California premiere at the Fountain Theatre after its introduction in San Francisco last fall.
Clearly, playwright Mart Crowley has done a lot of thinking about the gay community in the intervening years. Problem is, his new play isn't so much a play as a checklist of issues, which he rushes through, furiously scratching items off of the sheet as he goes. Among his topics: generational shifts in gay consciousness, aging, illness, the right to die, substance abuse, recovery ... check, check, check....
Six of the original characters, now hovering around 60, are back. They are joined by three younger men, in their late 20s and early 30s. The men gather at the Manhattan apartment of the prickly writer Michael not for a party this time, but for a post-funeral celebration of life.
A number of familiar stage and television actors fill the roles, including Georg Stanford Brown as Bernard, Robert Pine as Hank, Loren Freeman as Emory, Brian Carpenter as Donald and Alan Safier as Michael. But they are mostly wasted. The 1968 script's sharp characterizations are missing, the acid witticisms devolve into tired jokes and drama is manufactured out of thin air. Director Stephen Sachs tries to pump energy into the proceedings, but things quickly stagnate in the stylish living room (designed by Eric E. Sinkkonen) that cleverly pops out of a photomural backdrop.
To a public hoping for a "Godfather, Part II" of a sequel, Crowley has instead delivered a "Grease 2."
-- Daryl H. Miller
"The Men From the Boys," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 28. $25. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Local history in 'Tropical America'
Juan Devis' "Tropical America," at the 24th Street Theatre, was inspired by the censorship of a 1930s Los Angeles mural. City elders of the day, outraged by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros' depiction of an indigenous Indian as the crucified Christ, ordered the mural effaced. Decades later, the Olvera Street artwork is being restored by the Getty at a cost of millions.
Colombian-born Devis uses that incident as a jumping-off point for his passionate but episodic play about colonialism, genocide and social inequity among Indians in the Americas from the time of the conquistadors to the present day.
For the first half of its brief running time, the play has the austere and ceremonial tones of a requiem. A hungry native who steals a melon is crucified for his "crime." A repressed nun divests herself of her habit to deliver a blazing proto-feminist diatribe. The less successful latter scenes become inexplicably overblown and generalized, incorporating exaggerated comedic elements that disrupt the sacramental atmosphere.
The production -- the first for the 24th Street Theatre's Latino/Chicano theater initiative, Teatro Nuevo -- is a blend of English and Spanish. That can be a shortcoming. Those viewers who aren't bilingual may find the thread of the narrative difficult to grasp.
Set designer Christopher R. Boltz's bold painted backdrops are particularly apt, and Kathi O'Donohue's subtle lighting design sets an appropriately somber mood. The cast is fittingly ardent, but their acting, under the auspices of director Carmelo Alvarez, tends toward the broad, most notably in the second half.
"Tropical America," 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St. (at Hoover), Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 10. $15. (213) 745-6516. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.