TWO PROFESSIONAL productions of "Hamlet" are in town. The Folger Theater's croses today. At Arena Stage, "Hamlet" began previews Friday and opens Wednesday. The actors who play Hamlet, Michael Tolaydo at the Folger and Kristoffer Tabori at Arena, discussed the challenges of the role in a conversation with Don Shirley, whose remarks appear in italic.

Is playing Hamlet all it's cracked up to be?

Tolaydo: It's bottomless. You can do it a million times, and it changes all the time. In the 1800s, famous actors did it every five or six years. You'd see Booth's young Hamlet, then his more mature Hamlet and then every six or seven years Hamlet would changes as he changed.

Tabori: David Garrick, at his swan performance, was being interviewed - and he had played it 35 or 40 years - and he was asked, "How do you feel about ending your playing of Hamlet?" And he said, "Well. I'm really very sad. I feel I'm just beginning to know the boy." It's an endless process.

How old is Hamlet supposed to be?

Tabori: I think he's a young man, in his 20s. There's talk about him being 30 when he returns (from England), but there's probably good theater sense behind that: maybe Burbage (the actor said to have created the role) toward the end of his playing had to make amends for his age. But whatever it is, he's a young man. I think he becomes a little neurotic if he's well into his 30s.

Tolaydo: I put him young, too. I try to play him that way.

Have you thought about doing Hamlet for your entire careers?

Tabori: Any actor who loves this kind of theater wishes to do Hamlet, and sometimes actors who have no love of this kind of theater still want to do these plays, and unfortunately often do. It's a great part not only in that it gives you a great swashbuckling time, but it also affects your life. The man that you're portraying tries to behave in a correct and moral way, and his dissatisfactions with himself and the life around him are so telling and so sterling that you have to question yourself. It becomes a marvelous reference; I find myself in a lot of situations thinking, "What would Hamlet do?" He doesn't always do well, but at least he tries.

He's not really such a nice guy, is he?

Tabori: Oh, nice has nothing to do with it.

Tolaydo: In fact, no one in it is too nice, really.

Except Horatio, maybe

Tolaydo: And Ophelia, if she's given a chance. But it's rotten situation. We didn't have Freud in those days.

Tabori: How do you live as a human being in an inhuman world? It's a real problem we face today. I certainly do, anyway. None too successfully.

Tolaydo: A role like that makes you very receptive to a tremendous amount of stuff that's going on, just by the nature of the amount of work and the range that this person has. It's just phenomenal.

Tabori: You really have to think to play Hamlet, and you have to feel to play Hamlet. And that, by the way, has nothing to do with being successful in the part. We're being very narcissistic here when we talk about what we feel about it. That has nothing to do with being successful.

Tolaydo: I don't think you can really do it properly anymore. I have a pet theory about this play. I think it and a few others ought to be buried for 10 years. No one ought to be allowed to look at them, because everyone knows them and no one knows them at all.

Tabori: That's true.

Tolaydo: Everyone comes in with preconceived notions from childhood memories or what someone said about it: "Oh, 'to be or not to be' - that's about suicide." Reviewers come with those preconceived notions as well. It's very rare that you see "Hamlet" done normally now, because everyone's trying to make a stamp on it.

Tabori: My desire - and I'm not going to succeed, by the way - is really to do Shakespeare's Hamlet. I am not out there to say, "Oh boy, I can't wait to get into those tights, and lunge, and say all these beautiful words and singer lines and -." The more you get into it, the more you don't want to do the tricks, and you get tired of everybody doing their little business, so they make their mark on the play. You want to do the play Shakespeare wrote.

Tolaydo: I don't know how good or bad our production is - but it does tell the story. I feel terribly sorry for you (Tabori). Because we've done it first, the critics have a gauge just to compare which is always a rotten damn thing to happen.

Tabori: It's going to be so unbelievably different. You're gonna just giggle.

Tolaydo: No, no. I can't wait.

Tabori: I hope somebody sees both productions, because it'll be interesting to see resonably intelligent people coming up with such different conclusions. In terms of the directors' attack more than the actors, it'sgonna be different.

"Hamlet" used to be a vehicle for the star. Has the director completely taken over?

Tabori: The actor has all the same burdens but none of the same strengths. Obviously, we have an enormous commitment because of the time we spend on stage and what we're asked to transmit. But since the 19th century the theater has moved from actor-manager to director-administrator. They now call the initial shots. We're the ones who gotta pull it off, but we don't get to initially make the mistake.

I've heard that your director, Liviu Ciulei, tells every actor what to do at every minute of the action.

Tabori: Well, the plays he has directed here previously have been plays that he has very successfully produced in Europe, and they've been European plays where he has had a greater command of the original language. This is his first "Hamlet"; it's in our native language as opposed to either a foreign one for both of us or his own language.

Tolaydo: Careful, you're treading on dangerous ground here.

Tabori: No, I'm not. Watch me. I can't say that he has imposed things like that. Obviously we'll disagree on things, but he's by no means a dictator. And he's been very generous about learning the play as he's gone along, which is a brave quality in a director. That takes guts. How'd I do?

Tolaydo: Very well. I couldn't have phrased it better myself. Our director was more of a literary chap, more concerned - which is good and valid - with doing the play, as opposed to trying to make a stamp. We suffer a little for that - we don't really have a definitive line or "through theme." But there was very good rapport. I'm a very aggressive actor and I need strong directors. If my choices are wrong, I need someone to prove to me that they're wrong. And Jonathan (Alper) on the whole could do that. Maybe every now and again he didn't and maybe I suffer for it because you can't watch yourself. The nature of the role is that whatever your basic nature is, or whatever those depths are within you, they take over. If you're a reflective fellow, your Hamlet tends to be more reflective. I'm an activist type. I see him as a very angry young man. He comes home and wants to console his mother and she doesn't need him. She's off with his uncle. That hurts. He's stuck with his uncle pawing his mother, and he's stopped from going back to school, where he feels at home. And suddenly he's in this intrugue in the court, and he's a little out of his depth. And what happens? This ghost appears and tells him all this stuff, and one thing piles on the other. Your director guides you through it.

Tabori: "Hamlet" is a play in which the actor and the director really have to run a parallel course. You can't direct it without your Hamlet, and you can't play it without your director. The conception of the character runs so close to what the whole story is finally going to say. I would say that a director and a Hamlet should spend a good four or five months together, before they ever start rehearsals, so that they work absolutely together. It's important for the cast to see the unity of those two individuals.

Tolaydo: Hamlet is the backbone of the play, and how everyone reacts around him depend on the way the director and the actor are going with their choices, and on a very primitive level: If he played certain scenes very soft, then these reactions here or these interrelationships must be harder to counterbalance. Which is why this became a star vehicle. Unfortunately we still live a lot by that system - where you go and see Burtons Hamlet, and Nicol Williamson's Hamlet, and you shouldn't. You should go and see Hamlet.

What's going on between Hamlet and Ophelia ?

Tolaydo: Well, you can go a lot of directions. A lot depends on how much Hamlet knows beforehand. Olivier made the choice in his film that Hamlet hears Polonius and the king and the queen discuss exactly what they're going to do, and he knows that Ophelia is going to be set up for him.

Tabori: "I'll lose my daughter to him" (the line Polonius says to the king when outlining his plans for Ophelia)

Tolaydo: Hamlet hears that happen (in the Olivier [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . So [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Ophelia is done for the people [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the hell are they. Then he touches the curtain and pretends and puts her in this terrible position. But at the end, when he says "Get to a nunnery" the last time, he does it very affectionately . . . I think Hamlet's very much in love with her. The man is desperate to tell someone something, and he can't tell anyone. One of the tragedies in this play is that he has no one he can turn to, not even Horatio. It's all (inside him). How do you get it out? Not only does he have to kill the uncle, he has to save the kingdom and in such a way that it's understood why it's being done. I think he loves Ophelia very much. I pay it as a love scene, and we've made the choice that we discover half-way through.

Tabori: I wasn't clear where you made the discovery. You didn't make the early entrance (as Olivier did), and I didn't see you discover them behind the arras.

Toldydo: She puts her hands up to my lips, somewhere in "what should such fellows as I do . . ."

Tabori: "Crawling between us and heaven . . ."

Tolaydo: And it's like ta plea, almost like he's begging. Suddenly she touches him. ANd it just hit me during rehearsal once that it's the first positive, really physical thing she's done. She touches me and suddenly there's that transition to "Get thee to a nunnery."

Tabori: In other words, by touching you on the lips . . .

Tolaydo: I suddenly realize that before that moment everything she has done has been negative. "Here are your presents , here are your gifts, take 'em back, I musn't talk to you." Then what the hell are you doing in the hallway and why have you suddenly (touched me) - I don't think he's sure, 'cause when I ask "Where's your father?" I'm not sure. And then you probably can't see it, but her eyes look up to the curtain, and then she tries to look away, and that's when he clicks, and he realizes it. He's very cruel when he realizes she's being set up for a patsy. But everyone's doing that to him. No one is being honest. THose are the choices we made. There are a hundred ways to do it.

Tabori: I'm not playing it the way I think it should be done. Liviu has very strong feelings about what should be done there, and what I'm after would have to start to be played in Act 1, Scene 3, when Laertes goes away. And when would have to be followed up in 2.1 when she comes into the scene with Polonius . Often the very moment you play is not the moment you can really illuminate what you feel, but it has to be set up by an orchestration that starts way earlier. And if the director is working toward something else, you're defeating your own purpose to play your ideal, because finally there are no ideals. You play productions . . . There are a lot of very strange thins in it (the Ophelia-Hamlet scene). They come in and there's the very enigmatic "Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered." Is that really warm, or is it a joke, or what is it? Strange.She gives him back the gifts - now we're playing the early entrance, so I overhear . . .

Tolaydo: So you see what's happening.

Tabori: Then it's interesting: Verse is spoken up to "their perfume lost, take these again for to the noble mind rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind. Here, my lord." Suddenly the verse breaks, and he ways this rather bizarre thing: "Are you hones?" So we're playing it that I start being rather in love with her, and I'm happy to see her, and gooey, and all that sort of jazz, and on the presentation of the gifts, it's like I go "Boing!" I remember "I'll loose my daughter to him" and I think "My God, have I been duped?" I make a move away, and she tries to hand me back the things, and then that dialogue is a strange attack on her covered in this idle talk, all that complicated verbiage he uses when he doesn't want anybody to pin him. And then "where is your father?" is similar to his choice (Tolaydo's). It becaome a plea to get out of this terrible world - "Get there t a nunnery" - you gotta get out of here. Everybody's going to drown. I'm playing it: "I don't know why you've been duped to do this, but if there's anything decent in you, get out, because this is the pits." And then he thinks "Wait a minute. Who am I saying? Let's find out what this woman really is," and I ask her "Where's your father?" and of course she lies, and then it becomes, also an attack on them. I won't go through all the choices. But it's similar. The choice of the discovery is a little different, because I make the early entrance. But it's on the same lines. Love being perverted. She's put up to this deceit in the hopes that her beauties will be the cause of his madness and the cure.

Tolaydo: And she also believes he's mad. She's been told that enough and seen enough crazy things. But to deceive is very difficult if you're not a dishonest type of person, which is one of the conflicts she has to deal with.

Has any particular Hamlet most influenced you ?

Tolaydo: Mine. (laugh) No, I'm being facetious.

Tobori: I was in a production John Dexter directed with Brian Bedford, who did some brilliant work. I see myself stealing from him right,left and center. I used to watch him like a hawk. However, now it's getting fuzzy, and I'm starting to make my own choices and getting farther away from him. But when in doubt, I rob from Brian Bedford. He's an actor I respect. And then I thought Nicol Williamson did some beautiful work. The film was awful, but I saw him on Broadway, and I thought he did some great things.

Does any particular speech seem to be the key in your interpretations , or at least your favorite ?

Tabori: I love saying "I could be bound in a nutshell, and account myself a king of infinite-space, were it not that I have bad dreams." That's very much his problem. He'd rather be sitting around reading that haveing to deal with all this.I know I would.

Tolaydo: My favorite is "How all occasions."

Talbori: It's the most fun to do, isn't it?

Tolaydo: Yeah. It's very quiet, and you just built up. I like the whole play. It's hard not to like the man. He can write, Jesus Christ. Virtually anything is golden.

Tabori: Yeah, it's true. You find yourself quoting lines all the time. Because it's so lovely on the tongue.