He may be the protagonist of one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, but Hamlet can be awfully easy to make fun of.
The gloomy prince of Denmark knows his father’s own brother killed him to steal both the throne and his wife. He knows this because his father’s ghost came back explicitly to tell Hamlet all this and to demand vengeance, but still Hamlet hems and haws about what to do while he pretends to be losing his mind just to mess with people.
In the production of “Hamlet” that kicks off American Conservatory Theater’s 2017-18 season, however, the moody man of inaction is no laughing matter. His voice choked with emotion, acclaimed Obie Award-winning actor John Douglas Thompson (who starred in the solo show “Satchmo at the Waldorf” at ACT last year) makes the well of deep despair in which Hamlet wallows feel palpably real.
In the company’s first Shakespeare production “The Tempest” in 1996, artistic director Carey Perloff amplifies the gloom throughout the play. Hamlet describes Denmark as a prison, and David Israel Reynoso’s imposing scenic design takes that description literally, with towering concrete walls tinged with soot. James F. Ingalls’ lighting tends to be dim and shadowy, and Jake Rodriguez’s sound design conspires with spare music by David Coulter (who also composed the score for ACT’s recent world premiere of “A Thousand Splendid Suns”) to create an unnerving soundscape rumbling under the action.
Thompson’s potent performance is at the heart of this “Hamlet,” but he’s in good company with the local performers in the cast. Former ACT core company member and erstwhile Lorraine Hansberry Theatre artistic director Steven Anthony Jones strikes just the right mix of slight pomposity and smooth oratory as King Claudius. Jones also plays the blankly doleful ghost of Hamlet’s father, but the whole staging of the ghost scenes is underwhelming, and a disembodied command he gives after he leaves is laughably hokey.
Domenique Lozano is a graceful Queen Gertrude with a rising undercurrent of distress. This Hamlet being visibly about the same age as his mother requires some suspension of disbelief, but the performances make it fairly easy to shrug off that implausibility.
Dan Hiatt is a glum and comically loquacious Polonius, the king’s advisor. Rivka Borek is a mildly bewildered ingenue as his daughter Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest, though she becomes aggressively crazed once pushed too far. Teagle F. Bougere is amiable if not quite fiery as her vengeful brother Laertes.
Graham Beckel is calmly eloquent as the leader of a group of traveling actors and a pleasingly comical gravedigger surprisingly singing a Tom Waits-style junkyard (or graveyard) blues. Anthony Fusco makes an earnest and effectively understated Horatio, Hamlet’s friend and confidant, and Vincent J. Randazzo and Teddy Spencer play college buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern almost like a vaudeville comedy duo with checkered sport coats and fedoras.
Jomar Tagatac surprisingly doesn’t appear at all until the entrance of his stern Norwegian military leader Fortinbras at the end, more than three hours into the play, not even doubling as one of many minor characters along the way.
ACT is never shy about producing long plays, and “Hamlet” is certainly no exception, clocking in at three hours and 15 minutes. Perloff’s production proceeds at a slow, deliberate pace, which has its pluses and its minuses. It certainly gives time to take in all the great soliloquies one might have missed in other productions. But there’s also a listlessness that pervades the production, with a lot of people standing around with their hands in the pockets of their trenchcoats. It’s as if Hamlet’s funk is catching.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at email@example.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By William Shakespeare, presented by American Conservatory Theater
Through: Oct. 15
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: Three hours and 15 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $15-$105; 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org
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