There may be something rotten in Denmark but getting back to the theater to see Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet, directed by Elizabeth Swain, was absolutely refreshing. Theater has finally broken free from the “Covid Cocoon” and what a way to bust out. From the moment you step into the theater, you are hit with the crack of thunder shaking the ground beneath your feet. The stage lighting creates a brindled foreboding atmosphere that portends the inevitable storm. I swear you could smell rain.
All of this sensational build-up climaxes when the ghost of King Hamlet appears, and what an entrance he makes. For a moment you share in Hamlet’s experience. It is as if your mind is playing tricks on you. Expert lighting and design creates the illusion of a hologram prowling down an area that you couldn’t quite tell was their pre-show. When you finally realize that the specter has a tangible body you are as bewildered as the watchmen.
The production is off to an exciting start. As the show progresses the bright spots tend to shine through less and less but that may be due in part to the nature of the work itself. I have read that “The main reason why Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most enduring work is that it requires the most endurance” and that is true of this production as well. If you are a lover of the Bard and relish in his every finely tuned detail you can’t help but have the hair stand up on the back of your neck at beginning of each famous soliloquy. If you are a newcomer to Shakespeare or even a casual fan Hamlet can feel like weathering a storm.
In an effort to, what felt like speed up the run time, the pacing of our titular character became as frantic as his “antic-disposition”. Taking on the role of Hamlet is only for the bravest of actors and Ramon de Ocampo deserves respect for taking his turn. He delivers the goods with all the gusto he could muster. By the end, you could tell he was genuinely exhausted, however therein lies the paradox. The energy level was so high for so long that Hamlet hardly got the chance to breathe. Hamlet can get the point across in three hours but if really left to stew a little longer, the audience can be drawn into the mire with him and the experience would be complete.
Still, the members of Antaeus Theatre Company provide a wonderful night of spectacle and skill. Particularly admirable was the performance by Peter Van Norden in both the roles of Polonius and The Gravedigger. Polonius’s fustian personality is on full display lifting up the show with pops of much-needed levity and his gravedigger showed what a well-seasoned actor can do with even a bit part.
Another moment that stood out was when Van Norden, along with Sally Hughes as Reynaldo, elevated a seemingly inconsequential moment into a riot of a scene. Van Norden’s snappy timing and Hughes’s ability to create lovable comedic characters turned a brief moment into something I could watch a whole play about (If Hughes is interested I hear Saturday Night Live is losing a few cast members) Not only can she handle the comedic roles but her turns as Guildenstern and Fortinbras make me curious to see her as a future Hamlet herself.
This play affords its cast so many great opportunities to shine it really is a gift to the audience. When Hamlet confronts his mother Gertrude, Veralyn Jones plays the scene with such stunning gravitas that one can’t help but desire for her pleas to be listened to. In the second act Jeanne Syquia as Ophelia takes over, lulling us into eddy after eddy with her palliative singing then plunges us back into the rapids that is the tumult in Denmark. Joel Swetow as First Player not only enlightens Hamlet but is as believable in his portrayal of Pyrrhus as any actor could be. A player playing a character with all the emotion and earnestness of a real person sitting in the audience. That is the genius of Shakespeare at work.
T.S. Eliot said “We can say of Shakespeare, that never has a man turned so little knowledge to such great account,”. Hamlet displays Shakespeare’s genius with every speech and scene and the actors here highlight it. If you can get over the “flowery language” and really explore the words being used you will find that Shakespeare’s plays reveal to you everything you need to know about how to handle the human condition. To burst back onto the scene with such a noble endeavor deserves your audience.
Go see Antaeus Theatre Company Perform Hamlet at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center 110 East Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205