Rhyme and Reason

Richard II is as given to high-flown poetry, and King Lear weathers as many cosmic crises, but the role of Hamlet is still considered the supreme account of an actor's mettle. From Burbage to Bernhardt to Barrymore to Burton to Branagh, performers have always laid everything on the line to portray the greatest human ever conceived by dramatic invention. And while it's daunting to take on a role that's been inhabited by history's best actors -- just about everything imaginable has been done with (and to) the part -- an actor can place his or her own stamp on the character by avoiding novelty for novelty's sake and sticking to a few fundamentals, like paying close attention to textual clues.

This is what local actor Gene Gillette manages to do in the Denver Civic Theatre's engaging production of Hamlet. Although some of the supporting portrayals lack dimension and staging problems detract from the story's sweep, Gillette draws on reservoirs of humanity, technique, insight and showmanship to successfully navigate a theatrical rite of passage. The twenty-something performer is assured from start to finish and equally at ease in scenes of high emotion and low comedy. By choosing to speak the many soliloquies directly to the audience, Gillette makes us feel as though we're partners on his emotional odyssey instead of grudgingly welcome eavesdroppers.

Unfortunately, director Gary Logan embellishes several of Hamlet's speeches with abrupt light shifts and electronic musical sounds that add little to our understanding of the Danish prince's dilemma. Worse, neither special effect makes much sense: Logan has set the play in 1803, which makes the synthesized music seem out of place, and taking the lights down during the soliloquies suggests that Hamlet is temporarily stepping out of his era to address our own. By contrast, if he kept the lights up during the spoken arias it would transport us to Hamlet's world, permit Gillette to freely move about the faux-stone castle setting and allow the soliloquies to complement the rest of the scenes. Plus, Gillette doesn't need musical sounds to "help" the soliloquies: the music, as he often demonstrates, is in the words themselves. Even when Logan maroons him on a remote platform for the most crucial speech of all ("To be or not to be"), Gillette has no problem articulating the rhythms and cadences that underscore meaning.

Thankfully, the technical distractions don't prevent Gillette's Hamlet from forging strong relationships with several key characters. He's clearly at odds with his stepfather, Claudius (well played by Greg Humphreys), from the moment the new king rips down a pair of black curtains hung in memory of Hamlet's dead father -- who was Denmark's king before Claudius poisoned him, married his queen and usurped his throne. During the scene that grows from "To be or not to be," Gillette convinces us of Hamlet's wounded affection for Ophelia (a poised Elgin Kelley runs the gamut from tender affection to sheer madness). A few scenes later, he summons a wealth of conflicted feeling for his mother, Gertrude (powerfully portrayed by Kathryn Gray). And his interactions with his confidant, Horatio (capably rendered by Skid Maher), add to our understanding of Hamlet's tempest-tossed state.

The pacing of the three-and-a-half-hour production is comfortable, the dialogue is competently delivered, and the actors hold our interest during the most perfunctory scenes. But even though the play is something of a revenge tragedy, the production doesn't contain much tension, excitement or turmoil. Most of the shortcomings stem from several staging gaffes and a couple of inconsistent portrayals. For instance, the ghost of Hamlet's father speaks in an amplified voice that makes him sound like a malfunctioning vending machine. This silly distortion hardly makes young Hamlet's idol of a father sound like a heroic figure doomed to eternal unrest until his sacred honor is avenged. And the ghost keeps making uncalled-for appearances to characters other than Hamlet, making the Bard's eloquent tragedy look more like a TV horror-movie-of-the-week. Later, when Hamlet and his mother have it out in her bedroom, the young prince kills a courtly advisor, Polonius, who's hiding behind an elaborate tapestry. But rather than keep the body conveniently hidden behind the curtain, Logan lets the bleeding corpse lie on the opposite side of the stage, where it draws unnecessary focus from Hamlet and Gertrude's volatile confrontation. In addition, actor Steve Wilson's otherwise fine portrayal of Polonius (who's also Ophelia's father) is layered with mannerisms that make him seem like an incompetent bureaucrat instead of a crafty insider sometimes given to eccentric behavior. And Kelley's Ophelia initially appears too independent to need, and then tragically lack, the guidance that her father and brother, Laertes, provide. As a result, her ensuing madness following Polonius's demise seems more spurious than inevitable.

Elsewhere, though, Logan and company pull off some admirable feats. The notoriously difficult play-within-a-play scene is a delight to behold; the pools of patterned light that accompany the ghost's demands lend some much-needed mystery; Hamlet discovers Claudius praying, rather than, as sometimes happens in other productions, purposefully sneaking up on him and then refusing to kill him; and Hamlet's final exhortation to Horatio is beautifully played.

All in all, the Civic's respectable production is more faithful to the spirit of the language than anything the neighboring Colorado Shakespeare Festival has produced recently. And the theater's new seats and wine-colored act curtain make watching the world's greatest play an even greater pleasure.

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Jim Lillie