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Making laugh tracks to the Bard's stage

May 28, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Sullivan, who won a best-director Tony in 2001 for David Auburn's "Proof," is staging the first "Hamlet" of his long career. Linklater came already attached, on the strength of his "Hamlet" in New Haven and his past work at South Coast. That was fine with Sullivan, who didn't see either of those shows but had admired Linklater in Peter Hall's production of "Measure for Measure" at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1999. It's a treat, Sullivan says, to have an actor who's the right age for Hamlet. "Most of the Hamlets of recent memory have been people in middle age. With all these multicolored facets, the extraordinary genius of the man, it's difficult for younger actors who aren't as experienced in life."

Urie became Horatio by nailing his audition. Sullivan had seen him on "Ugly Betty" but in person found an actor who, while gathering a mass following as a consummate 21st century put-down artist, had both the sensibility to be Hamlet's steadfast, stoical sounding-board and the chops to plant Shakespearean language in 21st century ears.

Urie has no intention of giving fans of his Marc character any whiff of a gay subtext for Horatio -- not that it hasn't been done. "You could, but I'm not playing a sexual love," he says. "Horatio adores Hamlet and is the only person who knows everything. Because of that, he's incredibly loyal and responsible."

As for Linklater, "Hamlet" is proving more fun the second time around, even on short sleep as he commutes daily between L.A. and Costa Mesa while sharing nighttime baby-soothing duty with his wife, playwright-screenwriter Jessica Goldberg. Their first child, Lucinda Rose Linklater, was born March 11, shortly after production wrapped on "The New Adventures of Old Christine."

At Long Wharf, Linklater decided Hamlet was not depressed, self-destructive, suffering from an Oedipal fixation or, as Sir Laurence Olivier famously envisioned him on film, incapable of making up his mind. He was a man trying to find his way through a tunnel, hoping all might yet be well, only to have the opening narrow and the light recede. It was a good theory, Linklater says, but this time he's relaxed enough not to need one. "I have more faith that the play is as popular as it is for a reason, so you just cling to the moments" and let them unfold.

A while later, they're in a rehearsal room, running through the play-within-a-play scene. Urie stands by watchfully as faithful, ready Horatio, while Linklater's Hamlet wobbles and slides about in awkward spasms of activity, giving last-minute advice to the actors he's counting on to help him "catch the conscience of the king." He's the very image of a nervous, novice theater director, moving set-pieces around compulsively and nearly tripping while laying a dropcloth and a pillow for the player-king's fatal nap. All the while he breathlessly jabbers at the actors, veteran players who clearly are humoring him, if they're paying attention at all. The bit becomes a surprising and amusing gloss on the high stakes and small annoyances of life in the theater.

The Bard probably would have had fun sizing up today's acting scene, where careers can zigzag from the disposable but well-paid work of distracting and delighting with sitcom to the demanding business of thrusting audiences into the tragedy of an intriguing, surpassingly eloquent and complex prince whose doom has gripped the world since 1602 or thereabouts and shows no signs of letting go. With the TV cameras turned off for now, Linklater and Urie are sidekicking their way into another thespian category on Polonius' long list -- one whose name the critic Harold Bloom appropriated a few years ago for the title of his worshipful book on "Hamlet": "Poem Unlimited."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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`Hamlet'

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Runs: Friday through July 1

Price: $28 to $60

Contact: (714) 708-5555

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