A Missing Presence
Actor Bill Hamlin Riveted Attention Without Showing Off

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that director Michael Kahn once asked actor Bill Hamlin, who was standing among the ensemble onstage during a rehearsal, to please "have less presence." Not likely. With his shock of white hair, his perfect diction and his intelligence, Hamlin made Shaw and Shakespeare look easy, and he handled contemporary parts, too.

The Oregon-born actor died Thursday at Holy Cross Hospital. He was 64. His lung cancer had just been diagnosed last month after he became ill while appearing in "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Hamlin was an exceedingly private person with no family here, so Washington Stage Guild's Ann Norton says she took over his medical care. She and Stage Guild vets Bill Largess, Conrad Feininger and Lynn Steinmetz visited and sat with him as he slipped into unconsciousness.

Norton calls Hamlin "a prince" with a wicked sense of humor and impeccable taste, a love of Wagner operas and all music. "There was never any prima-donna-ness or any of that nonsense. He was always affable. . . . He was just a gentleman, an old-fashioned gentleman. If he wore a hat, he'd tip it to you."

Hamlin was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for his acting in Theater J's "The Mad Dancers," a best-stage-actor award from Baltimore City Paper for Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" at Everyman Theatre, and a Mary Goldwater Award from the Theatre Lobby for his performances as James Joyce in Don Nigro's "Lucia Mad" and as Captain Shotover in Shaw's "Heartbreak House," both at Stage Guild. He had a parallel career until 2002 as a velvet-voiced late-night deejay on 94.7 FM, and after his acting gigs would dash up to Rockville for his radio shift, then sleep during the day.

Largess remembers working with Hamlin on Michael Hollinger's "exuberantly goofy" play "Incorruptible," about medieval monks faking holy relics. "You just had the sense that he was having the time of his life," Largess says. "When the audience reacted very freely, when there was a big laugh . . . he would get this subtle twinkle-in-his-eye look that was, like, 'We got 'em!' "

Synetic Synesthesia

Synetic Theater's resident composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze, writes colorful music, quite literally.

For Synetic's "The Fall of the House of Usher" earlier this season, the Georgia native, who speaks with an interpretive assist from Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili, saw a "metallic silver color" in the show's essence and tried to embody it in the music he created.

For the wordless, movement-based "Romeo and Juliet," at the Rosslyn Spectrum through March 8, he envisioned a "diamond" sound, "crystal pure clear," but with a clock ticking underneath, making "disturbing sounds around the purity." Tsikurishvili's concept (with wife Irina's choreography) sets Shakespeare's play inside a giant clockworks, with gears and pendulum ticking away the young lives headed toward disaster.

Lortkipanidze has composed six shows for Synetic (the first three, "Frankenstein, "Macbeth" and "Animal Farm," long-distance from Tbilisi before his move here), but "Romeo and Juliet" affords him a chance to perform his music live. Perched high above the stage and visible to the audience, he works with computer and keyboard. The 31-year-old composer, who cites as influences Edgard Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen, likes to synthesize big orchestral sounds and mix them with avant-garde electronic riffs. "When it's mixed, it makes a new sound and a new style," he says.

During the rehearsal process, he creates various musical ideas at home, then tries them with the actors the next day. "You develop the music, almost the soul of the scene, and when you fuse [the music and the acting] together, it's amazing," says Tsikurishvili.

Lortkipanidze's father died while the young composer was working on the lovers' death scene, the director says. "That's probably why it is so emotional and very deep, that scene."

Nods to the Unnominated

Here, all you theater wonks, is our annual list of shows and performers that impressed Backstage but were overlooked in the nominations for Helen Hayes Awards. They deserve a little "hey, nonny nonny," too.

Yes, Woolly Mammoth swept up a lot of Hayes nods on Monday night ( http://www.helenhayes.org), but what about the company's nifty world premiere of "Current Nobody," Melissa James Gibson's touching, modern riff on Homer's Odyssey? And remember Arena Stage's witty production of Lisa Kron's "Well" with Nancy Robinette as that sweet, hypochondriacal mother, and its gritty, good-hearted "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"? Crackerjack stagings of "Democracy" and "Brooklyn Boy" distinguished Olney Theatre Center last summer, as did the company's more recent, intimate "Fiddler on the Roof."

Then there was Round House Theatre's riotous "Orson's Shadow"; Studio's chilling "The Pillowman"; Rep Stage's elegant, funny "Bach at Leipzig" and smart "Mrs. Farnsworth"; Washington Stage Guild's brainy "Opus"; Rorschach Theatre's riotous "Rough Magic"; and Theater Alliance's handsome "Ambition Facing West" and passionately acted "In on It" and "Blue/Orange." The fledgling Constellation Theatre Company conjured a gorgeous "Arabian Nights" on a shoestring -- oh, those Oriental rugs!

Among the actors, some of them new to us, who brought delight:

Raymond Bokhour and Liam Craig made a fine pair of Fate's schlemiels in Studio Theatre's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Ken Schatz was an extraordinarily touching Fool in Folger's "King Lear." At Washington Shakespeare Company, Alexander Strain was a scary, twisted emperor in "Caligula," and Chris Henley's cringing Kafka was a hoot in "Kafka's . . . ." And for the finale, a nod to the fine ensemble that brought August Wilson's "Jitney" to life at Ford's Theatre.

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