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Ever hear of one called 'Hamlet'?

Director Michael Michetti and A Noise Within manage to make the tragedy fresh.

October 06, 2008|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

How does one stage "Hamlet"? Let us count the ways. The ghosts of Hamlets past -- no pun intended -- haunt contemporary directors, who must distinguish their own efforts in a crowded field. Then there's the problem of casting the play, which too often serves as a vanity project for third-rate Hamlets ill-equipped for the task.

In his current staging at A Noise Within, director-adapter Michael Michetti grasps the play's potentially prickly challenges with boldness and ingenuity. Granted, his adaptation, while certainly brisk, jettisons essential passages, such as Hamlet's "Almighty Caesar" speech, an eloquent musing on mortality. And in his unstinting efforts to revitalize the play's familiar tropes, Michetti sometimes blunders into excess.

Those irritations aside, there are times when Michetti's innovations border on brilliance. In his subtle modernization, Michetti strips away the obfuscating layers of past "Hamlets" and brings new clarity to the play.

If you need a clue to the thematic thrust, look no further than the clear Lucite thrones positioned upstage on Sara Ryung Clement's starkly functional set. Those see-through thrones are striking visual metaphors, as is the plastic-like partition that is the main set piece. In Peter Gottlieb's excellent lighting design, that partition is initially lighted to look like a bright Rothko rectangle. Subsequently, it functions as a scrim, affording a voyeuristic peep into the inner court at Elsinore. Then it's a mirror-like reflective surface that features, stunningly, in Hamlet's interaction with his father's ghost. (To say anything more about that particular scene would be a spoiler.)

Less effective are Clement's confusing costumes, which vary from the sumptuous to the silly. Ophelia (winsome Dorothea Harahan) wears an off-the-shoulder cocktail dress straight out of "Mad Men," Claudius (superb Francois Giroday) sports the glittering purple robe of a sideshow magician, and the Gravedigger (always able Mark Bramhall) is dressed like a '49er digging for the mother lode. Though novel, the costumes are chronologically confusing, marring the production's clarity.

On the whole, the cast is compelling, although Polonius, as portrayed by the physically taut and commanding Tony Abatemarco, comes across as more dynamic than doddering, and Deborah Strang's richly passionate Gertrude seems oddly subdued in the scene in which she brings news of Ophelia's death. As Laertes, physically deft Matthew Jaeger is a bit flat, as is Steve Coombs as Horatio.

Yet any "Hamlet" rises and falls with the actor's performance in the title role. Freddy Douglas is, quite simply, one of the best Hamlets in memory. In Michetti's take, Hamlet is a "cutter," expressing his agony in self-inflicted wounds. All that slicing and dicing is initially off-putting, but Douglas humanizes the conceit in a protean portrayal that never falters. His "To be or not to be" soliloquy, spoken with knife poised on wrist, has a wincing immediacy that makes us hear the words as if for the first time.


"The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. In repertory. Schedule varies. Ends Dec. 7. $40-$44. (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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