Monday, October 2, 2017


William Shakespeare

John Douglas Thompson
That something is “rotten in Denmark” becomes immediately obvious in the opening minutes of American Conservatory Theatre’s current production of Hamlet.  Black-clad men climb from the bowels of some underground passageway, with streaks of stark light emanating from the subterranean world onto the towering walls of what may be the interior or exterior of buildings in bad repair.  David Israel Reynoso’s scenic design is massively ugly and foreboding with its stained walls of gray concrete, huge windows with cracked and missing panes, dark corners, and a large freight opening with a heavy plastic curtain separating what we see from what we can not quite ascertain on the other side.  The lighting of James F. Ingalls creates atmospheres of ominous colors – purple, green, red – and shadows lurk gigantic in the heights of the walls.  The time period is in question in a world that looks permanently damaged from past, bad decisions.  As a king and queen and members of the court emerge in present-day clothes (also designed by Mr. Reynoso), a gold, modern-day set of chairs for the royal couple and a chandelier that may have come from Crate and Barrel or Z Gallerie are the only bright spots in an otherwise dreary scene.  What is amazing is that no one in the royal court seems in the least surprised or bothered by the totally dismal surroundings.  This is the normal world as they now know it.

And so Carey Perloff opens her last season as A.C.T.’s Artistic Director to direct her first Hamlet and the first of the Company since 1990.  This is a play that most of us in the audience have surely seen one-to-many other times. (I lost my own count during my 30+ years of going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.).  However, this soon becomes a production we each know will takes its own stand as unique, important, and different from any other we may have seen. 

Domenique Lozano & John Douglas Thompson
Particularly striking is Hamlet himself, for he is not the usual (at least for modern audiences) young, handsome man barely shaving that often graces that part.  This Hamlet is the much-accomplished and well-seasoned John Douglas Thompson, an actor beginning his sixth decade of life.  He brings to this Hamlet a maturity and set of life experiences that redefine Hamlet’s feigned madness, his abhorrence of the marriage of his mother to his uncle (only two months after his kingly father has died), and his decision-making process whether and how to seek revenge once he suspects their foul play against his father.  The famous lines of Shakespeare (such as the “to be or not to be”) flow from Mr. Thompson not as part of a memorized script or dramatized reading, but as natural-sounding reflections and considerations of a man who is actually quite in control amidst the chaos and deteriorating environment around him.  He is calculated and cunning in ways that speak of a man who knows himself well.  He can make fools of his college buddies-of-sorts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while keeping them in the dark of his true intentions or state of mind.  He is willing to scorn his uncle/now-father with a confidence of statement that is more of a peer than a younger son or subject.  And when he grabs his mother’s face and forces her to look into the unseen faces of both her dead and her present husbands to compare their nobilities (or lack there-of in the latter’s case), Mr. Thompson does so with a sense of inner power and surety that a young son in his twenties would probably not have. 

The Hamlet that Mr. Thompson shapes and forms before us is not the tempestuous, temper-prone boy becoming man that one often sees in the twenty-somethings portraying the Prince of Denmark. This is a Hamlet who grieves both for his betrayed father as well as for his own sure fatal fate to revenge that father – a fate where his own plans of love and eventual rule are now known as impossible and a fate that he seems to understand is just another sign of a world permanently scarred by the acts of the people within it – including himself.

Stephen Anthony Jones & Domenique Lozano
Surrounding John Douglas Thompson is an equally impressive cast, from minor to major roles. When we meet Queen Gertrude, the slightly up-tilted head of Domenique Lozano ensures her eyes lower to look in slight disdain at all those lower in caste than she.  Her face puckers in pride as she listens to the royal decrees and braggadocio of her new husband and former brother-in-law.  Later as her own guilt makes its way into her now wrinkled face, she degenerates before us into a queen barely holding onto her own sanity while trying to control and console those around her who are fast losing theirs.  Ms. Lozano is superb in every respect as the queen whose own doom is only a matter of time, as can be seen in eyes that increasingly shout the fear felt within.

As both the live and the dead kings – as both the perpetrator, Claudius, and the victim, Hamlet’s father – Steven Anthony Jones is bombastic and blow-hardy in voice and demeanor as the former king and ethereally spooky as the latter king.  When the Ghost King finally speaks to Hamlet, his vocalizes the hate for his brother and the abomination of the murderous act with a haunting yet booming voice while moving little other his speaking lips.  The visceral tension generated is later matched by the now-Claudius confessing in an unholy prayer his newly found agony and self-doubt surrounding the fratricide he has committed to gain the crown and his bride. 

Dan Hiatt & John Douglas Thompson
As is true in most Shakespearean tragedies and is certainly true in this Hamlet as directed by Carey Perloff, there are many moments of quick and even sustained humor – both in specific characterizations and in quick tongue-in-cheek smirks by Hamlet himself.  Dan Hiatt is particularly memorable as the bowtie-donned Polonius, a lord in the king’s court who is wont to lecture on and on (and on) like a college professor, exacting his spoken “t’s” with consonant clarity and dotting all his “i’s” to provide more than enough details and examples on whatever the present subject. 

Graham Beckel & Teddy Spencer
As the Gravediggers, Graham Beckel’s and Teddy Spencer’s interactions with Hamlet are like those of comic trio on a Vaudeville stage and produce the desired levity preceding the next, upcoming scenes of blood and death. 
Mr. Becket is also part of the troupe of traveling thespians (along with Peter Fanone and Adrianna Mitchell) that get to draw laughs with their songs and silly play (and piano playing) before they shift to enact Hamlet’s planned test to see if the words of the Ghost are those of a devil or in fact, of his father.  (That shift in the play-within-a-play’s mood is given startling announcement by the honkey-style piano music composed by David Coulter shifting to take on screeching, shocking reverberations as just the strings of the upright piano are played and pounded.)

Vincent J. Randazzo and Teddy Spencer bring an aw-shucks, collegiate quality to their respective Guildenstern and Rosencrantz roles and are fun to watch as they try to gauge how to react first to Prince Hamlet and then to King Claudius in order to stay in the good graces of each.  As they begin to side more with the latter, their shift to the ‘dark side’ makes their bumbling manners more sinister as the two maintain a certain comedy while clearly also being calculative in how to do whatever it takes (including enabling a possible murder of Hamlet) to stay in the King’s graces.

In no way funny but altogether evocatively beautiful and pitiful at the same time is the performance of Rivka Borek as Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s would-be fiancé, Ophelia.  When first introduced, her Ophelia is clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable by her father’s praises and the royal couple’s attention on her.  Later, as she mourns her own father’s demise at the hands of her intended, the truly crazed and sorrow-ravaged Ophelia is actually uncomfortable to watch as Ms. Borek becomes a young woman wandering in see-through negligee, singing a nonsensical, bawdy song.  Actor, director, and costume designer collaborate brilliantly to bring the totally depressed Ophelia back in a later scene now dressed in her dead father’s suit, giving gifts to the stunned court of his bowties as if they were recently gathered herbs.  The Ophelia created by Ms. Borek is altogether startling, sad, and stunning.

Less successful in his assigned portrayal but certainly still adequate is Anthony Fusco as Hamlet’s loyal friend, Horatio (and the only person of the court left standing alive at the play’s end).  He so underplays the part that his Horatio fades into the background when compared to those around him. 

Overplaying is more the issue with Teague F. Bougere’s Laertes, the revenge-seeking son of Polonius. Mr. Bougere does not find much variation in his loud, bold, and almost bully approach in portraying the son crazed in his own way by the grief he suffers.  Where his Laertes does shine is in the final duel with Hamlet, a fight with Filipino sticks (called eskrima) whose metallic crashes and violent swings and hits have been expertly choreographed by fight director Jonathan Rider.

When all is said and done in this three-plus-hour version of Hamlet and as the bodies lay strewn in the stage’s dark shadows of the glowering walls, we as audience know that Carey Perloff and American Conservatory Theatre have successfully created a production of the oft-staged classic of classics.  This Hamlet will be long-remembered both for its startling staging and for its Prince who is older, wiser, and thus more unsettling than many of those preceding him.

Rating: 4.5 E

Hamlet continues through October 15, 2017 at American Conservatory Theatre, The Geary Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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