Just a little over three years ago, a trio of young PaliHi grads with a love of the Bard debuted a new theater company, The Porters Of Hellsgate, with a mission to make Shakespeare come alive for their generation. Their tenth production, Hamlet, once again proves them a force to be reckoned with in Los Angeles classical theater.

Director Thomas Bigley’s highly imaginative staging and a number of bravura performances make this Hamlet a must-see, not just for Shakespeare fans but even for those who may have trepidations about seeing the 400+-year-old play.  In particular, cofounder Charles Pasternak gives an electric, tour de force performance as the Prince Of Denmark that can stand up to the best Hamlets you or I have seen.  

The production is not perfect. Not everyone in the cast rises to the level set by its best actors. Notwithstanding, The Porters Of Hellsgate’s Hamlet is one well worth an enthusiastic “WOW!”

Pasternak’s work alone is worth the price of admission.  A darkly intense, magnetic presence, Pasternak impresses throughout. Whether agonizing over his father’s murder and his mother’s remarriage to Hamlet’s power-hungry uncle, or craftily feigning madness as part of his revenge strategy, or ultimately losing his mind to grief, the young actor gives a performance of quicksilver brilliance and dexterous physicality.

Bigley’s inspired direction impresses again and again, aided and abetted by Daniel Keck’s excellent lighting design and the production’s equally effective sound design.  

Scenes between Hamlet and his father’s ghost are about as spooky as it gets, the hooded specter lit from behind so that only the dimmest shadow of his face is revealed.  As the ghost sinks back down into his grave, a naked arm reaches up from below to pull him underground. When Hamlet makes his friends Horatio and Marcellus swear never to reveal the events of that night, he does it repeatedly, the trio’s rapid movements about the stage choreographed for maximum dramatic effect. One of Hamlet’s soliloquies ends strikingly with a single spot on Hamlet’s raised arm before fading to black.  When the ever longwinded Polonius gets to the last of the pearls of wisdom he’s been imparting to Laertes, his son completes the list (“To thine own self be true”) before father has uttered the second syllable of the phrase.  (How many times has he heard this before?)  The many ways Pasternak’s Hamlet contorts his body yoga-style while conversing with friends and family—the better to come across bonkers—are inspired choices.  Following a blackout, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy begins with the actor’s voice rising up from amidst the audience.  (Unbeknownst to us, he’s been reclining in the center aisle cogitating on the meaning of life during the previous blackout.)

Several scenes have been staged in ways I’ve never seen them done, and they too are wow-worthy. When Claudius begins his praying-in-the-chapel soliloquy, a gold-satin curtain descends behind him as a backdrop, only to be revealed as a scrim when lit from behind where Hamlet stands listening.  The same scrim/curtain is the one which Polonius hides behind when Hamlet arrives in the Queen’s chamber with possibly murderous intent. Bigley has Polonius hiding downstage of the scrim, in full view of the audience. We see not only Hamlet and his mother, but the eavesdropping Polonius as well, and when Hamlet approaches, knife in hand, the effect is all the more powerful and shocking because we see all three characters at once.  The moment when Gertrude drinks from the poisoned goblet is even more devastating than usual because she is downstage, close enough for the audience to shout out “Don’t!”—if only there weren’t that fourth wall.

Beyond Bigley’s directorial ingenuity, there are a number of truly standout performances, first and foremost that of Eddie Castuera as Horatio.  Looking ready to costar as Zac Efron’s best buddy in the teen idol’s next movie, Castuera’s mastery of Shakespearean language comes initially as a bit of surprise.  More than anyone else in the cast, Castuera makes iambic pentameter sound as conversational as it can be, all the while preserving the poetry of Shakespeare’s verse and commanding audience attention with his charismatic stage presence.

Bigley and Gus Krieger are as memorable a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as I’ve seen, each a quirky delight, their performances doubtless informed by the fact that Hamlet is being presented in rotating rep with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead—with the same cast!  Alex Parker makes for a handsome, dynamic Laertes. Like Castuera, his delivery demonstrates a particular comfort and ease with Shakespearean English, and Laertes’ swordfight with Hamlet is as exciting as it gets. Jessica Temple has many powerful moments as Gertrude, especially opposite Pasternak in the scene where Hamlet relentlessly berates and insults his mother to tears.   Taylor Fisher does lovely work as Ophelia and Micah Cover is a fine 1st Player. Several actors appear in multiple roles, the best of them Angele Dayer’s Voltemand and Player Queen and Christina McKinnon’s droll Osric.

The main area in which Bigley’s direction could be improved would be in insuring that all of his actors are on the same page linguistically. Jamey Hecht does a witty take on Polonius, but his British accent is quite out of place (and he is a tad young for the role). Mark Nager is an amusing 1st Gravedigger, among other roles, but conversely his English isn’t heightened enough to fit the words he’s speaking. Pasternak, Castuera, Parker, and Temple have it down best, and others would do well to follow suit. Jack Leahy does great work as the Ghost, but his performance as Claudius could benefit from the invisible acting of his best castmates, and he too affects an out-of-place British accent. Completing the cast are Kevin Kelley and Nicholas Neidorf, both of whom show promise.

Most casting choices are spot-on, but a professional Shakespearean production needs to have certain roles played by older actors. High schools and colleges can (and usually must) cast regardless of age, but to be taken seriously as a company, the Porters Of Hellsgate would do well to think outside the “student production” box, and roles like Claudius and Gertrude are better filled by actors with the look and life experience of the characters they are portraying.

Bigley’s set design reflects the ingenuity he shows as a director, making the most of the Flight Theatre’s restricted stage area and allowing quick transformations between graveyard and palace and other locales.  Jessica Pasternak (mother of the star) has costumed the cast elegantly and fittingly in a nicely classic but non-time-specific style.

Whatever qualms or quibbles I may have expressed here are more than outweighed by the overall excellence and excitement of the production. Pasternak’s performance alone deserves to be seen as do Bigley’s arresting directorial strokes. In my review of last year’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, I wrote that “The Porters Of Hellsgate have the ability to make Shakespeare come alive with a skill and grace which belies the youth of the company.” The same holds true with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Porters Of Hellsgate, The Flight Theatre in The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. Through Feburary 13. www.facebook.com/pages/The-Porters-Of-Hellsgate/76892528805

–Steven Stanley
January 7, 2010

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