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Review: In this 'Hamlet' at the Broad Stage, high spirits abound

The fresh-faced approach to 'Hamlet' by the Shakespeare's Globe may not bring on the tears, but a good time is had by all at the Broad Stage.

November 16, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Michael Benz, left, Dickon Tyrrell, Peter Bray, Miranda Foster and Matthew Romain perform in "Hamlet."
Michael Benz, left, Dickon Tyrrell, Peter Bray, Miranda Foster and Matthew… (Noel Vasquez, WireImage )

Tired of the pomp and circumstance of costume drama? Looking for a lively, playfully stripped down, less fuddy-duddy-ish take on the classics? Not that interested in experiencing a catharsis? Then head down to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica for the touring British production of "Hamlet" from Shakespeare's Globe.

This brisk, clearly enunciated, vigorously youthful staging, employing a solid company of eight versatile actors, puts me in mind of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's goal of remaking the U.S. military into a leaner, agile and more flexible operation.

The Globe's traveling "Hamlet," performed outdoors in London and with the house lights blazing when indoors on the road, is on a mission to root out waste, to maximize efficiencies and to get the job done with a fraction of the usual personnel.

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A "Hamlet" for our downsizing age, this return visit to Elsinore is a fluent, amiable and blessedly pain-free affair. (Oh, the tale of woe I could recount of my encounters with the mad Dane!) But the production also represents another installment of Shakespeare without tears, leaving one marveling at the company's exuberant resourcefulness while longing for a bit more emotional depth.

Originally directed by the Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole (Bill Buckhurst took over the directorial reins of this 2012 U.S. tour), the production strikes me as a kind of Platonic ideal of a student production, with accomplished faculty members taking on the older parts. Not that university theater departments can match this level of professionalism (the cast's comfort with Shakespearean diction alone sets the bar incredibly high).

But this "Hamlet" is a model of clarity, with a storytelling imagination that is crisply entertaining. It may not break our hearts, but it is never dull.

Michael Benz's Hamlet is a bright, fair-haired innocent, a sweet-natured college boy whose lack of direct experience with the world puts him at a great disadvantage as the state of Denmark grows more and more rotten. His native kindness and expectation that others will act in good faith make him especially vulnerable to those jockeying for power and position.

Overwhelmed by his circumstances, he is continually astonished by the betrayal others are capable of. When Benz's Hamlet utters the words "Frailty, thy name is woman," he can't help recoiling at his own critique of his mother. Thoughts like this have obviously never occurred to him before.

There's never any doubt that this Hamlet loves Ophelia (Carlyss Peer), though he's furious at the way she falls into line with the secret stratagems of her father, Polonius (Christopher Saul). The shattered look on the young man's face when he finally recognizes that his good-time buddies Rosencrantz (Peter Bray) and Guildenstern (Matthew Romain) are spying on him tells you everything you need to know about his trusting nature.

The youthfulness of this Hamlet explains a lot, but clearly the prince has lived a cosseted life. Even his melancholy seems unnatural to him. His dream for himself was apparently a completely happy one — wedded bliss with Ophelia, beers and philosophy with BFF Horatio (Tom Lawrence), weekend golfing with R&G, dinner with the folks on Sunday.

The idea of having to hunt down Claudius (Dickon Tyrrell) for killing his father and marrying his mother, Gertrude (Miranda Foster), is a nightmare that he can barely comprehend. Evidently, "Oedipus Rex" wasn't required reading back then at Wittenberg U.

This is the freshest aspect of the Globe production. Too often Hamlet is played like a super-sophisticated 40-year-old, tired, world-weary, in need of a strong antidepressant. Benz's performance, however, doesn't really build toward a greater revelation. As the character's language grows more profound, the actor has trouble keeping up. His delivery never devolves into words, words, words, but the deeper layers of meaning get skirted.

Theatrical buoyancy substitutes for tragic vision. This is a "Hamlet" with a surprising comical bent. The most rollicking scene is the play within the play. Here, the casting challenge of having one set of actors portray two sets of characters is worked out in the most energetically ingenious fashion. (A red curtain separating the onstage audience from the performers makes the impossible more or less possible.)

The Globe's unstuffy approach to Shakespeare is designed to envelop an audience in the sheer pleasure of putting on a show. There's music, there's dancing — high spirits abound. Who says death-haunted drama can't be fun? At the end, the corpses strewn across the stage arise and do a kind of jig. It feels right for a production that would rather be swift than solemn.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Hamlet'

Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: Contact theater for schedule. Ends Nov. 25.

Tickets: $54-$137

Contact: (310) 434-3200 or http://www.thebroadstage.com

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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