“Hamlet” is a daunting prospect for everyone. The marathon length of the play – Shakespeare’s longest – raises the stakes for actors and audience alike.
The Antaeus Theater Company’s production of Hamlet, which opened Saturday at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale, rises to the challenge with speed and efficiency. Director Elizabeth Swain keeps the pace as fast as possible.
Actors don’t hang around or perform to motivate themselves. They speak the line and move through the story – quickly.
Ramón de Ocampo, who plays Hamlet, ruminates and sulks like any Hamlet should. But he is not entitled to an infinite time to look at his navel. He pronounces his soliloquies as if he had repeated them with a stopwatch.
De Ocampo understands that he has a long tragedy to go through. There’s no time to dawdle, even though Hamlet happens to be the world’s most famous procrastinator.
Unlike the parody of “King Lear” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Antaeus’ production of “Hamlet” is straightforward and fairly traditional. No one is wearing silly sunglasses or making video calls. There is no puzzling tragedy to frolic in.
The play is the thing, to quote Hamlet, though it’s not always clear what inspires this revival. Swain’s take on the drama is modest. The focus is on rhythms, action moments, rather than wider arcs. The scenes, scrupulously acted, follow one another without a new understanding of the tragedy appearing.
Antaeus is an actor-led company committed to keeping classical repertoire alive. The main purpose of this production seems to be to provide a group of performers with the opportunity to test themselves in one of the greatest pieces ever written.
That should be enough, right? Well, yes and no.
If you are a member of the theater community and want to follow the development of your colleagues, this production is for you. If you’re someone who wants to remember the plot of “Hamlet,” then this crisp rendition will certainly satisfy.
But what prompted this reinvestigation of the piece at this particular historical moment and for this specific Los Angeles community remains a mystery. Unnecessary reason, I hear Lear bellowing. Art needs no justification. But shouldn’t such a gigantic enterprise be ignited by a goal?
Competence, of course, is not to be neglected. And Swain’s directing is nothing if not respectfully clever.
The clean, understated production design evokes a painterly atmosphere of high tension and intrigue. Stephen Gifford’s stage design imagines an Elsinore of granite surface and martial geometry. Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting thickens the hazy shadows with a sense of foreboding. Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes divide the difference between conventional and modern.
Swain assembled a diverse group of performers to take on roles they might not have the opportunity to play in a more high-profile situation. The general level of acting between the principals is solid.
Gregg T. Daniel makes Claudius all the more formidable for maintaining such a reasonable facade. If he’s less effective than the Ghost, that has more to do with the awkward staging and cumbersome outfit than his howling bombshell.
Gertrude de Veralyn Jones reveals a resolutely strong will. She doesn’t initially seem so bothered that her son is obviously disgusted that he married his uncle so soon after his father died. But when Hamlet accuses his mother of being part of the murder plot, Gertrude de Jones seems both emotionally and morally stricken. She is a queen who feels more than she is used to showing.
Jeanne Syquia’s prosaic Ophelia initially seems more sane than anyone else at court. She clutches a medallion Hamlet gives her at the start of the play, but her loyalty to her father prevents her from deciphering the prince’s madness. When she loses everything, her mind cracks. But even his mental breakdown seems rational.
The prowess of veteran Peter Van Norden is one of the main pleasures of the production. His Polonius chatters stupidly without losing his essential dignity. And as a gravedigger, Van Norden really seems to be digging a hole in the earth even delivering what can’t help but sound like Beckettian lines today.
An entertaining double cast in small roles creates a hectic theatrical canvas. Sally Hughes juggles with Guildenstern, Voltemand, Reynaldo and Fortinbras. The impossibility of the task made me wonder why Swain hadn’t edited the script more rigorously to fit the limitations of the production.
One of the drawbacks of the director’s time-wasting approach is that the introspective flame of the play cannot burn freely. Hamlet as a character is so riddled with contradictions that his behavior can often seem disconcerting. But even at the most frustrating, the ardor of his thought draws us to him.
De Ocampo’s Hamlet is unfailingly passionate, but the staging doesn’t leave enough space for its inner life to unfold. We glimpse his revulsion at Claudius and his disappointment at his mother. We see his pain for Ophelia and his unbroken affection for Horatio (a beguiling Adam J. Smith). But his Hamlet is in such a hurry that it rarely gets to the point.
The rush only quickens in the hazy final act. Speed is essential in interpreting Shakespeare, but thinking cannot be rushed. Balancing these two imperatives is part of the captivating puzzle of interpreting “Hamlet.”
Where: Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Monday (see schedule for exceptions)
Contact: (818) 506-1983 or www.Antaeus.org
Operating time: 3 hours (including an intermission)