Since William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is considered by many to be the greatest play ever written, with just about every major stage actor having at one time or other tackled its title role, it’s noteworthy to say the least whenever a theater company takes on the challenge of staging it.  John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Ralph Fiennes, and Broadway’s latest Hamlet, Jude Law, are hard acts to follow. Nevertheless, on a shoestring budget and without a single “name” in their cast, the Knightsbridge Theatre’s National American Shakespeare Company has staged a highly commendable Hamlet featuring excellent work by a young actor named Joshua Hayden as the Prince Of Denmark.

Director Carolee Shoemaker describes Hamlet as the ultimate ghost story and has set it in the gothic Victorian age, with Vicki Conrad’s courtly eighteenth century costumes helping to set the scene. There are also hints of Bram Stokers’ Dracula thanks to some help from set designer Joey Benz, lighting designer David Islas, an uncredited sound design, and billowing clouds of fake fog. 

Shoemaker sets the mood even before the curtain speech with guard Francisco (Barry Saltzman) keeping watch in the night from high atop the walls surrounding the castle of Elsinore.  The spookiness continues as Horatio (Ben Fitch) and other guards first witness the ghost of their recently deceased king.  

From his first soliloquy, Hayden makes a strong impact with his dark, brooding good looks, resonant voice, and the passion he imparts to the role.  This is a young actor worth watching.

The rest of the cast does work which ranges from good to excellent.  David Stifel is a commanding King Claudius (despite some distracting aging-hippy hair), and an elegant Marti Hale impresses as Queen Gertrude—a 180 degree turn from her Mrs. Mushnik in the recent Little Shop Of Horrors. As Ophelia, Amanda Vermillion plays a mad scene that brings tears to the eyes. Bill Durham has nice comedic moments as Polonius, John P. DeLeonardis brings intensity to the role of Laertes, and Fitch does admirable work as Horatio.  Understudy John Doing did his best as the Ghost and the Player King despite not having completely mastered his lines.

Director Shoemaker knows when to lighten the mood, as she does with an amusingly played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (C. Ryan Greenwood and Max Lawrence), or should that be Guildenstern and Rosencrantz? A very good Eric Billitzer and Rich Pierrelouis also provide comic relief as Gravedigger One and Gravedigger Two. Saltzman is hilarious in a much needed eleventh hour comedic reprieve as Osric.

Completing the cast in commendable fashion are Stuart Calof (Marcellus), Dean Edward (Bernardo/Reynaldo), Jill Gehrke (Lavinia/Player Queen), and Sevan Niazi (Fortinbras).  Assistant director Doing deserves highest marks for his exciting fight choreography in the final scene.

For this Shakespeare non-aficionado, perhaps the greatest surprise of the evening is just how easy to follow and ultimately emotionally powerful this four-hundred year old play is. When Fortinbras makes his entrance into a courtroom strewn with dead royalty, I’d venture to guess that most in the audience were every bit as moved by the scene as this reviewer was.  This is a production of Hamlet quite deserving of a look-see.

(On a personal note, I played a seventeen-year old Voltemand at Santa Monica High School decades back, and have yet to see a production of Hamlet in which the role has not been cut.)

Knightsbridge Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 30, 2009

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