Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

It's taken its entire lifetime to do it, but Arena Stage Wednesday night presented its first "Hamlet." And in it, everybody wins - playwright, artists and, above all, the audience.

For Liviu Ciulei's production is superb, vigorous, assured and imaginative and, in the title role, Kristoffer Tabori is remarkable. About Wednesday's performance one can say, as rarely one does, that it had the freshness of never having happened before.

Ciulei, designer Ming Cho Lee and costumer Marjorie Slaiman have placed the action in late 19th-century Europe. Kaiser helmets suggest Germany, Richard Bauer's bearded Claudius brings back images of Russia's Czar Nicholas and even Elizabeth Franz, as Gertrude, reflects the lean, angular czarina.

Visually, the setting goes below ground. The main playing level is an island, with stone and brick stairs serving as moat between players and audience. Brass trumpets, muted, are heard from a distance, as are muffled drums. And occasionally come the romantic, heavily symphonic sounds of Liszt and Tchaikovsky.

It is set, then, in an ornate, proud period of history, but there is unease in the court and first to catch it is Tabori's finely considered Hamlet.

This Hamlet is an idealist who hesitates not out of cowardice, not out of uncertainty, even, but from disbelief. As Tabori looks around him, he cannot believe the malaise he senses. He illustrates it well on meeting his old schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is immediately welcoming. One feels, as one doesn't often feel, that indeed these two were Hamlet's friends at school. But before their first meeting is over, Hamlet has caught their liaison with Claudius.

There are other such well-considered moments. One is the inventive manner in which Ophelia's mad scene is presented. Usually it takes place in just one more room in Elsinore, but now it occurs at a private dinner Claudius and Gertrude are giving a few intimates, among them the failing Ophelia.

Christine Estabrook presents her to us as a laughing, frolicking girl in the introductory scene with Laertes, who, as James David Cromar portrays him, may well grow up to be like his father, Polonius. The gaiety and dress of Ophelia heighten the girl's collapse, a strikingly effective contrast.

Of such small, but effective, details is this "Hamlet" created. In the 3 1/2 hours of performance almost the entire play is here, including the Reynaldo and Fortinbras scenes, though lacking the second grave-digger.

The Tabori Prince Hamlet is indeed a prince, mannerly, observant and about all mercurial, able to shift with the swift mood changes poured into the character.

The same metamorphosis is achieved in his relationship with Ophelia. At the starts of the nunnery scene, one glimpses a true love for her. Then it fades into dismay and distrust, not for her, but for what her father has done.

Tabori, who has a wide, expressive face, finds intriguing readings for the most famous speeches. "O, what a rogue and peasant slave," he begins, then "AM I!" bold, imperious, terrified.

Tabori's Hamlet is one of the finest I've seen in scores of them.

But there is thought and assurance in all the players of this superbly achieved ensemble effect: Joel Colodner's manly Horatio; Bauer's cruel Claudius; the total innocence of Elizabeth Franz's Queen; the smug venality of Leonardo Cimino's Polonius; the style adopted for the wandering players and the choice of Frank Muller's fine voice, first as Francisco, finally, as Fortinbras, to begin and end the performance.