ACT's 'Hamlet' Lets A Veteran Classical Actor Shine, If Perhaps A Bit Too Late
The role of Hamlet is a holy-grail, bucket-list thing for many actors eager to prove they can command a stage for over three hours and convincingly deliver the many famous soliloquies of the brooding Danish prince. More than any other Shakespearean role, Hamlet is a test of virtuosity as well as endurance, with a character who oscillates between grief, cunning, humor, rage, love, vengeance, madness, and pathos, and back again, and again, in the play's long five acts. For actor John Douglas Thompson, the role has apparently always been something he wanted to tackle, with Othello, Antony, and Julius Caesar's Cassius already under his belt, and ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff — who is stepping down from the role after this, her final season — jumped at the chance to give Thompson a stage on which to play the tortured Dane.
ACT's Hamlet is well staged and adequately paced despite its typically daunting length — as written, the play would take over four hours to perform, and it's often cut down as it was here, in this case to three hours, not counting the intermission. And Perloff, as director, takes pleasure in teasing out the many moments of levity in Shakespeare's most complex tragedy. ACT veteran Dan Hiatt plays Polonius with plenty of bowtie-tweaking pompousness and farcical physical comedy; likewise does ACT company member Anthony Fusco, slightly miscast here as Horatio, bring his characteristic querying tone and amused skepticism to his role as Hamlet's closest confidant. And ACT company member Dominique Lozano is flippant and almost comically oblivious as Gertrude — almost too much so — until she's confronted by her son late in the play.
The versatile set design by David Israel Reynoso feels appropriately apocalyptic and industrial, and he uses a simple set of retractable sheer curtains to depict transitions between interior and exterior — Perloff says she wanted something inspired by places like Fukushima and Chernobyl, "places pitting the vulnerability of humanity against the toxicity of the world." The result is a soaring, foreboding set of concrete-textured walls, a fortress that doubles as an asylum, and an abandoned, contaminated nuclear power plant. (In keeping with that theme, they employ the sound of a Geiger counter every time the Ghost enters.)
Possibly the most powerful scene and most effective performance in the production comes in the second half, from Rivka Borek as Ophelia. The ACT MFA candidate is riveting as she portrays Ophelia's descent into madness, moreso than I've ever seen in a stage production — and Perloff's choice to have her don one of her dead father's suits and use a "bouquet" of his bowties for the famous monologue about rosemary and other herbs is an effective and clever one.
But coming back to Thompson's Hamlet: While he is eminently watchable and convincing during many moments in the play, using admirable restraint throughout the character's most well known soliloquies and his ultimate breakdown, I kept feeling distracted by one inescapable thing that is no fault of his. While tons of actors of all ages, many older than Thompson, have played this role for all the reasons I laid out above, I can't say I see it as a role that stands up to age-blind casting. Hamlet is a young prince, still in touch with college friends, prone to the fits of petulance, rage, and moral absolutism that one expects from a man in his twenties or early thirties (the text suggests the character is about 30, but possibly younger). Physically, too, this is a role that requires an actor to bounce, run, and jump all over the stage, and at 53 years old, Thompson is at best a capable Hamlet, just not always a believable one. Also, his voice came off as even slightly hoarse — perhaps just from rehearsing and performing the role in previews in recent days — which added to the distraction. As his father's ghost and his villainous uncle Claudius, Steven Anthony Jones does convincing work as Thompson's elder, but just given the fact that audiences most recently saw Thompson portraying a 70-year-old Louis Armstrong in Satchmo At The Waldorf, I feel like it shouldn't go unsaid that playing the 30-year-old Hamlet requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief.
Theatergoers new to Hamlet are still likely to enjoy this production, especially with the care that's given to highlighting Shakespeare's language, and the many, many turns of phrase that are now woven into English idiom, like "my mind's eye," "woe is me," and "heart of hearts" that originated with this important play. Also, Perloff and dramaturg Michael Paller stayed truer to Shakespeare's end for the play than many do when making cuts, ushering in Hamlet's foil, Fortinbras, prince of Norway, who gets the final words (though as usual, the subplot about Fortinbras avenging his own father's death through war gets a little bit lost in the shuffle of all the main characters getting killed).
Perloff says she pulled Hamlet off the shelf the day after last November's election, "longing to make sense of this altered world by reading something truly great," and she says she was "struck by the frightening resonance to our own time." As Polish theater critic Jan Kott has written, "Hamlet is like a sponge. It immediately absorbs all the problems of our time." This Hamlet does that and then some, in a contemporary fashion, though without any overt gestures — it's a Hamlet outside of time, loyal to the language and as natural sounding as it can be, and it's an auspicious beginning to Perloff's swan song.