Hamlet Retooled As Action Hero

Gertrude (Valerie Leonard), left, and Horatio (Aubrey Deeker) confront the mad Ophelia (Kathleen Coons) in Rep Stage's production of
Gertrude (Valerie Leonard), left, and Horatio (Aubrey Deeker) confront the mad Ophelia (Kathleen Coons) in Rep Stage's production of "Hamlet." (Stan Barouh - Rep Stage)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

As played by the young Washington actor Karl Miller, Hamlet is a most unhappy fella. You knew, of course, the Dane was a melancholy sort, but maybe you were unaware of just how down on the world he could be. When this Hamlet examines the skull of his old friend Yorick, he doesn't merely ruminate on the futility of existence. No, he takes out his feelings about life's bitter brittleness on what's left of Yorick himself -- by breaking the skull into little pieces.

You can see in such surprising, improvised moments how much thought Miller and director Kasi Campbell have put into their idea of the prince of Denmark as a man of dynamic impulse in Rep Stage's intriguing, if somewhat out-of-balance, modern-dress "Hamlet."

This is not the fence-sitting young royal of most versions of the play. Here's a guy who, via Campbell's editing, knows himself from the start. The director has taken a famous speech from deeper in the play -- the short "What a piece of work is a man" soliloquy -- and made it the production's opening monologue. The words, as a result, suggest a more confident young man, one who's more in touch with who he is, who now declares from the play's very outset that he has lost "all my mirth" -- and acts as though he's intent on doing something about it.

If any character in Shakespeare deserves the kind of imaginative spadework that has been applied here, it is Hamlet. Still, the production -- and audiences -- pay a price. What has been neglected is a similar level of development of many of the other pivotal characters, from Claudius to Gertrude to Ophelia. (Aubrey Deeker's gentle, devoted Horatio is a notable exception; James Denvil, too, offers a dignified turn as the ghost of Hamlet's father. And the "Animal House" antics of James Flanagan and Brandon McCoy generate entertaining comic mileage for their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)

This is the rare "Hamlet" in which malevolent Claudius (Nigel Reed) -- you will recall that he murders Hamlet's father, marries Hamlet's mother and in the process usurps the throne -- is rendered as fang-less: He's the snore of Elsinore. Or in which the madness of Ophelia (Kathleen Coons) appears to be just some sort of weird hang-up. (Coons is actually quite strong in the mad scene; it's the staging of the "To the nunnery" scene, in which Ophelia is cast off by Hamlet, that seems undercooked.)

In the weeks before the run ends, perhaps some of the actors in major supporting parts will be emboldened -- or allowed -- to make more emphatic statements. As it is, it sometimes feels over the course of this three-hour production that Miller has hogged the shipment of red blood cells that were meant to be transfused into everyone. He's magnetic at times, but at others, he comes across as so calculated -- his desire to emote on every syllable is transparent -- that he all but sucks the air out of the other actors' lungs. In the interludes in which he permits himself to relax, to worry a tad less about the precision of his clipped diction, he begins to exude a naturalness, and subtler shadings emerge. The funny lines become funny. And while not exactly a yukfest, "Hamlet" is rife with wit.

Miller, so exquisitely terrifying last year as one of the rampaging teenage assassins in Round House's "columbinus" (based on the Columbine High School shootings), is instinctively mysterious. He has the scowl of that unnervingly quiet kid who had his feet up in the back of your English class, staring down the teacher. This is where his Hamlet seems to spring from, a guy whose mistrustful nature is affirmed by the greed of his stepfather and the shifting loyalty of his mother. Miller is at his best when the people around Hamlet are at their worst.

The stage at Howard Community College, where Rep Stage makes its home, has been decorated to resemble a cave, the walls and floor fitted with the dark stone slabs of a crypt. In the center of the floor, set designer Tony Cisek has cut a rectangular grave, which tells you how closely death hovers at all times. Kathleen Geldard's costumes -- leather coats and neutral colors -- and Dan Covey's shadowy lighting reinforce the pervasive doom.

Campbell comes up with several nifty bits of staging, too -- among them, an initial materialization of the ghost of Hamlet's father that's gripping in every sense. Still, an audience member's heart never races at quite the clip the play demands.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Original music and sound, Chas March; fight director, Paul Dennhardt. With Daniel Frith, Valerie Leonard, Lawrence Redmond, Zak Jeffries, Ian Lockhart, Jeff Baker. About three hours. Through April 9 at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Call 410-772-4900 or visit .

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