From its opening moments, it’s clear that this Hamlet will be quite unlike any you’ve seen before.  Two young actors (Peter Weidman and Kirsten Kuiken) stand center stage in modern dress and begin reciting Hamlet’s instructions to the traveling players. You know the words.  “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue …”  These oft-quoted acting tips will serve as advice to the cast of tonight’s performance of Hamlet, and the two actors are soon surrounded by the entire ensemble, joining voices till the final “Go make you ready.” 

Lights down. Lights up. The Tragedy of the Prince of Denmark has begun.

Pared down to about an hour and forty-five minutes (plus a ten minute intermission), this “Members’ Forum” production of The Production Company moves forward towards its inevitable denouement like a swiftly moving train. It is exciting, involving, emotionally impactful, and one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve seen.

The cutting is virtually undetectable for anyone not intimately acquainted with the full-length version. Fortinbras has been edited out, though mention is made of the war he is planning against Denmark. (His absence will be mourned only by Shakespeare purists.)  Scene follows scene lickety-split, the only set changes required being moving a bench here or there, or bringing on a backless chair or two.

Jeremy Lelliott stars in the title role, and anyone who has seen this gifted young actor’s previous stage appearances will have no doubt that Hamlet is in  capable hands. Still able to pass as a teenager, Lelliott is (at last) a Hamlet we can believe as a young, brooding Prince who, like adolescents everywhere, struggles with the meaning of life and his place in the world. Lelliott commands the stage from his first entrance in a dynamic and multi-layered performance that keeps the audience enthralled.  His “To be or not to be,” spoken dagger in hand, sounds fresh and new as do Hamlet’s other famous soliloquies.

Michael Yurchak is a much younger Claudius than we’ve seen before, but entirely age-appropriate as this particular Hamlet’s uncle, the schemer who murdered his brother to be King and married his widow soon after.  Yurchak’s Claudius isn’t the mustache-twirling villain we’ve grown accustomed to, but (at least on the surface) an affable fellow, not evil through and through but perhaps merely a man like any other who happens to let his greed and lust get the better of him.  That is, at least, until the second act when “Bad Claudius” gets the better of his good self. Yurchak also creates a stunningly different character as the brother Claudius murdered (aka the ghost of Hamlet’s father), his face obscured from forehead to upper lip by a white “Phantom” mask.

Several other performances stand out in a mostly excellent cast. Ryan Wagner and Sammi Smith are wonderful as Laertes and his sister Ophelia, an initial scene making clear their closeness as well as Laertes’ tenderness and protectiveness towards his younger sibling. Smith is achingly real as Ophelia, a girl whose youth leaves her unprepared for the heartache of first love. Wagner’s Laertes is initially such a gentle young man that his heartbreak upon learning of Ophelia’s death and his vengeful anger towards Hamlet are all the more powerful. 

Kimberly Jürgen does very good work as Gertrude, a low-key performance that fits nicely with the Queen’s weakness in the presence of husband number two. Inrikwe Perezarce-Davalos likewise makes a strong impression as Polonius, a warm and witty gentleman (with a touch of a Spanish accent), though why the leather jacket and guerilla pants? Katherine Lee makes for a fine, supportive Horatio (yes, Hamlet’s bff is a girl, and why not?). Gedaly Guberek is a standout as the comic gravedigger and also appears as Rosencrantz opposite a female Guildenstern (Rainy Fields) and behind the scenes as dramaturg.  A fine John Klopping does quintuple duty—as Bernardo, Osric, a Captain, the priest at Ophelia’s funeral, and as fight choreographer. Weidman and Kuiken are terrific, both in the play’s opening scene and as Player King and Player Queen, ever so slightly over-the-top when enacting Hamlet’s play-within-the-play as befits any strolling actor worth his or her salt. Laura Crow completes the cast as Marcella (the character formerly known as Marcellus). 

Making Horatio a girl proves an interesting and believable choice, though I would have kept Marcellus Marcellus. A female Guildenstern also works less well, if only because we are supposed to believe that Claudius and Gertrude have difficulty telling one from the other. About half the cast are members of the newly established Coeurage Theatre Company set up by Lelliott and Wagner, a group of young actors you’re likely to be hearing much more from.

Director Maria Cominis deserves highest marks for her highly imaginative staging.  She makes particularly effective use of the house-left aisle in several sequences. The ghost of Hamlet’s father stands in the aisle at the back of the house as he is observed by actors on stage. Later, when an onstage Polonius reads Claudius and Gertrude a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, it is Hamlet’s voice we hear as he stands in the aisle behind Ophelia speaking the very words that Ophelia too has before her.  As Polonius gives a parting Laertes his words of advice (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” etc.), he hands his son a flashcard for each. (Clever!)  A couple scenes could benefit from revised blocking (e.g. we ought to be able to see Gertrude’s face during the play within the play) but for the most part Cominis uses the stage effectively and inventively.

Ultimately, what distinguishes this Hamlet from so many others is how crystal clear Shakespeare’s plot and language are, with credit due the skillfully abridged script, the razor-sharp direction, and performances that manage to be natural and contemporary all the while respecting the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.  

Sadly, the performance reviewed here was the last of four. It would be wonderful if this production could be brought back as a midweek TheProdCo offering or, barring that, in another venue. Considering its overall quality and the passionate work of its cast members, a return engagement would be welcome news indeed.

–Steven Stanley
December 14, 2009

The Production Company, Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.

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