In the search for the perfect "Hamlet," as in the search for the perfect romance or the perfect chocolate-chip cookie, one can grow increasingly bitter that nothing measures up, or one can have such a marvelous time looking that the goal doesn't seem that important any more.
The Folger Theater Group's new "Hamlet" is going to upset some searchers by not being in the intellectual-introspective-psychological style of our time. But it certainly is a rousing good show in the 19th-century matinee-idol trading, and, like Victorian furniture, may suddently seem very attractive to those who are tired of the austere.
Michael Tolaydo's Hamlet is so high-strung - always leaping about, zany in his madness and aquiver in his fear - that no one can accuse him of being over-reflective. Yet the interpretation works. He may not be a man who longs for death to still his inner agonies, but he is convincing as one who would consider momentarily every possible quickie solution, and then discard it for the next idea that pops into his feverish head.
Other characterizations are equally unexpected, some of them coming off better than others. Would you believe a smart-cookie Ophelia and a girlishly romantic Gertrude? Why not? Margaret Whitton's Ophelia is a self-confident adolescent who cracks when she finds herself vulnerable. Mikel Lambert's Gertrude is so radiantly happy as a late bride that it's obvious that her first husband and her son, whith all that talk of lust or considered judgment, quite misunderstood her. The weakness of the Ophelia is that one wonders why she appealed to Hamlet; the strength of the Gertrude is that one suddenly sees why Claudius needed her.
Peter Vogt has made Claudius so fascinating that it does seem perverse of Hamlet to remain uncharmed by him; if one can judge the late king's attraction by his ghost, Hamlet was making a terrible mistake to compare the two to his mother. This Claudius is always regal, both in his dignity and in his attempts of a pragmatic peace. He is at his finest when he addresses God, and if you previously wrote off this character at Hamlet's crude evaluation, you may find this restrained scene a highlight of the evening.
If one can keep such separate scores on the characters, as if they appear sequentially in a talent lineup rather than fusing into one interpretation, it has to be a fault in the production. But in comparison to the solid but conventional approaches - Allan Carlsen's Horatio, Albert Corbin's Polonius - these are interesting enough to make it worthwhile accepting some general imbalance. That is, provided that this is not your only "Hamlet." And there's another "Hamlet" coming up at Arena Stage next month.