Sunday, May 29, 2022

Hamlet (Antaeus Theatre Company 2022 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Frank Ishman
The Antaeus Theatre Company returns to in-person performances with a phenomenal new production of Hamlet, starring Ramón de Ocampo in the title role, and directed by Elizabeth Swain. This production features a relatively small, but incredibly talented cast, with many of the actors performing more than one role, including some cross-gender casting.

When the house opens, there is some atmospheric stage smoke, and the sound of thunder rumbling, which the audience feels beneath its feet at times, working to create a sense of foreboding. The set includes a series of metal bars or rods upstage, some of them crossing each other like swords or spears, adding to the sense of unease. It is an atmosphere that prepares the audience for the Ghost. In fact, it would be strange if a ghost didn’t appear in such an atmosphere. And so Bernardo’s startled and fearful delivery of “Who’s there?” is convincing and justified. There is also just a hint of playfulness in his reading, for he looks out at the audience on the line. The Ghost (Gregg T. Daniel) enters upstage of the metal bars, and at first seems to walk on air, for the ramp he is upon was not previously visible, an excellent effect. The Ghost has his long sword drawn, making it even more fearsome. Marcellus (Joel Swetow) starts to draw his sword when he asks if he should strike at it, but never fully takes it out, like he doesn’t really want to engage with the Ghost, a nice touch.

When the audience first sees Hamlet and Ophelia (Jeanne Syquia), Hamlet presents Ophelia with a necklace. It is an intimate moment, and they are about to kiss, when the entrance of Claudius and the others interrupts them. This is a wonderful additional bit of business that helps to establish their relationship. Often, an audience is left to wonder how strong Hamlet’s feelings are for Ophelia, and in this production it is clear from the beginning, which makes everything that follows much more powerful and moving. Also, in that moment, we actually see joy on Hamlet’s face, which disappears when Claudius (Gregg T. Daniel) says “our sometime sister, now our queen.” Hamlet, of course, is dressed all in black; Ophelia is in an attractive, more cheerful peach-colored dress. Further strengthening the connection between Hamlet and Ophelia is the moment when Claudius tells Hamlet he wishes him to stay in Denmark rather than return to school, for Hamlet then turns to Ophelia, and they share a look. So his staying seems more to do with her than obeying the wishes of the king or his mother.

In the first of his major soliloquies, Hamlet says “too too sullied flesh” following the Q2 reading rather than the Folio reading of “solid flesh.” Ramón de Ocampo (who was also outstanding as Angelo in the 2020 production of Measure For Measure) is fantastic here, and when he says “But two months dead,” the audience can see the tears in his eyes. And when he tells Horatio he is very glad to see him, the truth of his statement is evident in his voice. The presence of Horatio (Adam J. Smith) gives both him and the audience the sense that things might be all right. Adam J. Smith as Horatio gives an excellent performance. Laertes (Michael Kirby) has a pleasant, gentle countenance that makes him immediately likeable, which of course is important for those later moments when he wishes to lash out at both Claudius and Hamlet. Peter Van Norden gives one of the best and most believable performances of Polonius that I’ve seen. For that famous advice that he supplies Laertes, he reads from a book, reacting to the lines approvingly. He is then nearly angry when charging Ophelia not to speak to Hamlet. And Ophelia takes a moment before saying she’ll obey, seeming to consider his command first. And that too is wonderful, for the audience can see how much Hamlet means to her, and in relation, how much her father means to her, since she chooses to follow his command. All of these brief moments help to make her descent into madness believable.

The Ghost has his sword up again, but when he sees Hamlet, he lowers it, another nice touch. As the Ghost describes his own murder, he acts it out, as if pouring poison into young Hamlet’s ear. And Hamlet reacts in horror, and holds his hand against his ear, as if in pain, which is interesting, and makes the whole ghostly realm more frightening and real. Also really nice is that the Ghost speaks his “Leave her to heaven” line with obvious love, showing his human side is still part of him, and adding a touch of sadness to the horror of his state. The Ghost hands Hamlet his sword, basically passing onto him the means to do the deed he has commanded, which is exciting, but also effectively bestowing the kingdom upon him, which is what should have happened in the natural course of things. And interestingly, when Marcellus and Horatio re-enter, Hamlet hides the sword behind him, not revealing it until he asks them to swear upon his sword. Seeing the Ghost’s sword in Hamlet’s hand understandably startles them, in part because that basically proves to them that the Ghost is real. It’s an absolutely fantastic scene, and at the end of it, Hamlet hangs the sword on one of the metal bars upstage center, where it remains as a constant reminder of what Hamlet is charged with accomplishing, even as he delays.

Guildenstern is played by Sally Hughes, one of the male roles played by women in this production. Perhaps partly because of that casting, Rosencrantz (Lloyd Roberson II) and Guildenstern have more distinct personalities than is sometimes the case. When Voltemand (also played by Sally Hughes) delivers the line about giving quiet pass through the lands, Polonius gives an indication that Claudius should not allow it. But Claudius pays no attention to him, not even casting a glance his way as if to seek his opinion. In this production, Hamlet enters a little earlier than usual, and so hears Polonius voicing his idea of how to learn about Hamlet’s frame of mind, and so is aware of the plot from the beginning, which is interesting. At this point, Hamlet is barefoot, as part of his feigned madness. When the First Player (Joel Swetow) gives his speech, Hamlet and the other players develop a rhythm on the stage, sounding like a storm, interestingly making the audience recall the sounds in the theatre before the play began. Also interesting is the line about the player having tears in his eyes, for the audience might recall the tears visible in the eyes of the actor playing Hamlet earlier in this performance. Ramón de Ocampo does a great job with the “rogue and peasant slave” speech. As he cries out “O vengeance!” he has knelt just in front of his father’s sword, but facing away from it, toward the audience. Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s instructions regarding how she should present herself to Hamlet is wonderful. Her look shows clearly that she doesn’t think this is the best course, but will nevertheless follow his instructions. At the beginning of the “To be or not to be” speech, Hamlet has his dagger out, and addresses it. And on “remembrances,” Ophelia removes the jewelry that Hamlet gave her at the beginning. Because Hamlet is aware of the plot, he knows that Ophelia is lying when she answers that her father is at home. His look of despair is heartbreaking. She too is so troubled, that she can’t face him and turns away when she utters the lie (and so she misses his hurt expression). This scene is absolutely fantastic. And then after that, when Ophelia has crumbled to the ground, her strength gone, she reaches out to her father. But he turns to the king and exits with him, leaving her there. Ah, is it any surprise that she grows so distraught?

The players’ dumb-show is cut from this production. Polonius’ delivery of “Very like a whale” is hilarious, in that it is spoken honestly, as if he is actually noticing the shape of the cloud now rather than simply agreeing with whatever Hamlet says. Gertrude (Veralyn Jones) is clearly shocked on “As kill a king?” Perhaps she knows, deep down, in that moment some of the truth of it. Hamlet too seems momentarily surprised that he has given away that crucial bit of information. When the Ghost enters, he stands near his sword, which still hangs upstage. There follows an excellent moment when Claudius holds out his hand to Gertrude, and she hesitates, unsure what to do, whom to believe, before she does finally go with him. She is so good there, and that moment paves the way for a later moment when Claudius takes her by the arm and she shakes her arm free and this time does not go with him, instead exiting the opposite side of the stage. When Ophelia next appears, she is in a white dress, stained at the bottom, and is now barefoot, just like Hamlet. But whereas Hamlet’s madness was feigned, hers is genuine. Did Hamlet happen to get that detail correct in his own pretending, or did Ophelia pick up her cue from what she believed as true madness? It’s an intriguing detail. Ophelia is outstanding in this scene, not an easy one to do. I actually found myself fighting back tears. Regarding the flowers bit, Ophelia does not have actual flowers, but plucks invisible ones to hand out. Fortinbras (Sally Hughes) is all business, warlike and efficient, and when aiming the sword at Horatio, the audience gets the sense that he will not hesitate to use it. It is Fortinbras who finally removes the Ghost’s sword, indicating the transfer of power to him.

This production of Hamlet runs through June 20, 2022. Visit the company’s website for the complete schedule. There is one intermission, coming just before the end of Act III Scene ii. Interestingly, afterward, the play picks up with a line that comes just before the final line before the intermission. Antaeus Theatre Company performs at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, located at 110 East Broadway in Glendale, California.

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