Armchair theater geek that you are, you know more about William Shakespeare's Hamlet than you think. You should, since it's only the most popular play in the universe and has had more than 400 years to get that way. 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be'; 'This above all, to thine own self be true'; 'Brevity is the soul of wit'; 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark': Pop culture is choking on its extracts, and pretty much everybody's hip that the title character loses what's left upstairs (not to mention his heartbeat) in a plot to get even with his dad's killer.
He's a loose cannon to begin with, and The Old Globe Theatre's current turn at the play makes this clear. The difference in this show is that he's unusually eager for you to know that. There's a certain self-effacement in his voice and a scattershot, look-at-me quality to his moves; suddenly, his legendary brooding is colored with traces of an ironical, isn't-life-silly-and-funny-and-cute worldview. Even with all that popular recognition going for him, he's thus a lot easier to get to know, and he's among the reasons this first of three Shakespeare summer rep shows works in most of the ways it needs to.
Y'all know the story and its take on the price of revenge. Hamlet (Lucas Hall), the jaded, persnickety Prince of Denmark, is summoned home from college in Germany, only to learn from his father's ghost that the latter was offed by King Claudius (Bruce Turk), Hamlet's uncle. To boot, Claudius had the audacity to make off with and marry Hamlet's mom, Gertrude (a terrific Celeste Ciulla). From there, the play becomes a psychological case history, with Hamlet expounding on the nature of life and death as he works to avenge the murder.
Heavy stuff, tinged with Shakespearean mysticism and Hamlet's own tenuous hold on sanity. The irony is that the guy has a tremendous support system, from close childhood friends to Polonius (Charles Janasz), the wise old counsel to the king; their entreaties only seem to hasten his descent into madness.
But director Darko Tresnjak has put an almost disarming face on this classically gloomy character. Listen to the infamous 'To be or not to be' soliloquy-Hall's delivery is at once a lofty treatise on morality and Hamlet's stuffy, huffy declaration of revenge on Claudius. That kind of interplay swirls about the entire role, and Hall absolutely owns it, the same way Janasz takes command of Polonius. He plays the king's advisor as a punchy, almost giddy teddy bear whose bearing belies his political clout. The approach handily balances Hamlet's despond; and the lovable ol' fart's cruel death helps open the way to the scenes that feature his daughter Ophelia's (Joy Farmer-Clary) insanity as a solid complement to Hamlet's.
Costumer Robert Morgan's Elizabethan dress doesn't work any more than sartorials from any other period when you're talking Shakespeare-but somehow, Tresnjak's acclaimed stage portraits lessen the blow. Ultimately, this is a worthwhile piece on revenge and what it gets you-it's nicely devoid of a lot of fuss, and it's marked by a local milestone to boot.
San Diego actor Jonathan McMurtry, who portrays a gravedigger and a performer in the show's play within a play, celebrated his 70th birthday on opening night in his 200th role. His stage career dates to 1961, just as the Kennedy presidency was getting its legs.
The rub is that he won't get any radio press from Pat Launer, KPBS theater critic for nearly 20 years. The station has terminated her services in an apparent budgetary move as it embarks on its new fiscal period; it also claims it seeks to broaden its arts coverage. Twenty years is a good while in any event-San Diego theater has gathered some steam in certain respects during that time, and Launer's departure can't help but dull the effect.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of June 30. Hamlet runs through Sept. 30 at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $45-$62. 619-23-GLOBE.
I covered InnerMission Productions' Nest for two reasons-we don't hear from the scrappy little company often enough, and it's picked a hidden gem of a venue for local theater. Yes, North Park's Sunset Temple Grand Hall is a bit worse for wear, but there's nothing wrong with it that a little TLC wouldn't take care of, and at minimal cost. The same could be said of local writer George Soete's play.
His black comedy centers on the button-down Brad and Sophie Archer (Jess Ryan Williams and Kym Pappas), their encounter with Herman and Prissy Pratt (Ryan T. Roach and director Carla Nell) and the makeover that changes the Archers' lives. The acting is earnest enough, but the exposition is sluggish and threadbare, and we don't empathize accordingly as a consequence. But philosophically, Soete has a good sense of the genre's over-the-top elements; now, he needs to tighten and fill in his piece to underscore them. As for the Grand Hall: There must be a thousand underused such spaces crying for attention from San Diego's theater community, if it would but listen and heed.
Nest runs July 7 and 8 at the Sunset Temple Grand Hall, 2906 University Ave. (behind Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge), North Park. 619-245-4958. $15-$18.
Write to marty@SDcitybeat.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.