Michael Michetti + Hamlet @ A Noise Within = A sure-to-be-talked-about event.

As might be expected, Michetti’s production of Shakespeare’s most famous play is not your grandparents’ Hamlet. 

To begin with, the director has staged the play with a mere 10 actors playing 15 roles in a production cut down to just over 2½ hours.   Gone are Fortinbras and a number of peripheral characters, putting the focus squarely on Hamlet’s grief and Hamlet’s madness.

This Prince of Denmark’s grief is palpable, a pain so profound that in Michetti’s vision, the only way he can bear this agony is by being a “cutter,” (or an “emo” in current teen slang).  In several scenes sure to cause discomfort in some audience members, Hamlet takes out a pocket knife and cuts into his forearm. The only way for this Hamlet to take away his psychological pain is to cause himself physical pain, a pain which unlike the agony of his mother’s betrayal, is at least manageable.

What we have here is one quite mad Hamlet, perhaps even schizophrenic. In a tour de force performance, Freddy Douglas is both the Prince of Denmark and the ghost of his late father the King. Is Hamlet merely imagining his father’s ghost, or has the ghost entered Hamlet using Hamlet’s own voice to warn his son of Claudius’ treachery? Michetti is not telling us, but the sight of Hamlet talking to himself in a quite different voice from his own is startling to say the least, and in either case, the ghost has served his purpose—to electrify Hamlet into action.

Every actor who plays this “role of a lifetime” puts his own stamp on it, and this is certainly true of Douglas, the handsome U.K.-born-and-bred leading man who assumes the role here. There’s a bit of the petulant spoiled child in Douglas’s Hamlet, who carries a flask around in his pocket, the better to drown his sorrows. There’s also no doubt that Hamlet’s madness is absolutely real, not feigned as it is sometimes played. When Polonius comments that the barefoot, disheveled Hamlet is “far gone,” this is indeed the case, and later, when Hamlet sits beside the onstage pool with his ever-present pocket knife poised at the veins in his wrist, the words “To be or not to be” have never seemed so spot-on.

As Gertrude, Deborah Strang adds yet another classic female role to her already stellar A Noise Within résumé. This actress’s-actress shows us not only the sensuous (and conniving) woman capable of marrying her husband’s brother only months after his death, but also the powerful mother-love in Gertrude’s heart, and the real terror she feels at seeing her son’s madness and at hearing his accusations of murder.

Dorothea Harahan’s Ophelia is equally memorable. Because we have first seen her as a stylishly dressed young woman of the court, every hair in place, her mad scene, hair disheveled, and wearing only Hamlet’s blood-stained (from his self mutilation) white shirt, is all the more heartbreaking. Part of what makes Harahan’s mad scene so believable is that the actress makes it clear that Ophelia totally believes every word she is saying, even if to Hamlet and others around her, the words come across as gibberish.

Steve Coombs is a fine Horatio, cutting a dashing figure in his leather jacket and boots. A certain physical resemblance between Coombs and Douglas makes us aware of the man Hamlet might have been had he not had to deal with so much “stuff” in his life.

Matthew Jaeger and Jacob Sidney do double duty, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and also as Laertes (Jaeger) and as Osric (Sidney), each actor creating two such distinct characters that many in the audience may not realize that the four roles are being played by only two actors. There’s a nice Michetti bit where Laertes lifts up his sister and childhood playmate Ophelia and spins her around on his shoulders, and Sidney’s Osric is a standout, an Oklahoma hayseed in cowboy hat and string tie.

Stepping in on short notice in the role of Polonius, Tom Fitzpatrick, so memorable as Nonno in The Night Of The Iguana, does an absolutely splendid job here without a hint of the “understudy.” Polonius’s famed advice to Ophelia comes across as totally spontaneous, as if these things were truly occurring to him for the first time speaking to his daughter.  Watch for the way Fitzpatrick’s Polonius changes in the presence of the King and Queen, putting on airs that were absent when speaking to his son and daughter, and the way he finds his own jokes so amusing that he just has to laugh.

Appearing as the Players (cut down here from four to two) are Mark Bramhall and Demond Robertson (both excellent), with Robertson doubling as the priest and Bramhall a particularly fine (and amusing) country bumpkin of a gravedigger.

Only François Giroday seems out of place as Claudius, giving a performance that could in a more traditional London production be called bravura, but whose veddy-uppah-clahss British accent, rolled “r’s” and all, doesn’t mesh with the style of the other actors, especially in his scenes with the far more natural Strang.

Visually and aurally, this is an absolutely stunning production. Michetti, himself a gifted scenic designer, is working here with a magnificent team—set designer Sara Ryung Clement, lighting designer Peter Gottlieb, costume designer Amanda Lee, and sound designer Kari Rae Seekins.  Upstage Plexiglas panels reveal (and conceal) characters in the background, and when Hamlet first catches sight of his father’s ghost, it is his own reflection that he sees.  Benches, tables, and the thrones of the King and Queen are made of Plexiglas as well creating a cold, stark atmosphere. Seekins has composed a chilling background blend of musical sounds which ups the dramatic intensity of the production several notches.  Lee’s costumes are strikingly modern and yet somehow timeless, the men in leather jackets and boots, the women in elegant gowns and cocktail dresses.  Fight choreographer extraordinaire Kenneth R. Mercks, Jr. has staged a spectacular 11th hour swordfight between Hamlet and Laertes befitting Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone.

There may have been Shakespeare purists in the audience uncomfortable with Michetti’s particular (and very modern) take on Hamlet, which a friend described as “Hamlet On Acid,” but most will find this an enthralling production, one to relish, and one to talk about in months to come.

A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. 

–Steven Stanley
October 15, 2008
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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