THE FOLGER, recently rescued from the brink of extinction, has mounted a subdued and sober "Hamlet," refreshingly free of stagy histrionics and such gimmicks as marked this season's splashy "King Lear." Though it never quite hits any real emotional peaks, it's an admirable production, clear and traditional, the kind of theater the Folger has pledged to provide.
Guest director Lindsay Anderson, who made his name in British theater but has made his fame making movies, imprints his presence in the strong opening image. Anderson condenses the play's climactic final scene as a cinematically styled flash-forward, with the dying Hamlet entreating his friend Horatio to "tell my story," complete with echo and fade-to-black.
From then on, Anderson's hand all but disappears from view, allowing the story to take the forefront. More in evidence is the work of set designer John Lee Beatty, whose elegant bi-level set, filled with dark, rich wood and subdued draperies, enhances the intimacy of the theater. Jeffrey Beecroft's moody lighting design makes lovely use of shadows and warm candlelight.
The play's the thing, however (it's also where that famous line comes from). And as Hamlet's nefarious uncle, King Claudius, says, "When sorrows come, they come not as single spies but in battalions." The sorrows are out in full force here -- "Hamlet" sports one of Shakespeare's everyone-dies- in-the-last-five-minutes conclusions. Fight choreographer Erik Fredricksen has done an admirable job, and the clang of steel on steel rings thrillingly true. The same cannot be said for the death scenes that follow.
The title role is a celebrated plum for actors, and in imported Irish actor Frank Grimes, Anderson has found a fine Hamlet. Grimes plays the melancholy Dane as a mercurial, cerebral young man, indulging himself overlong in unmanly grief over the murder of his beloved father but in canny control of every unsettling outburst.
Though Grimes' performance is undeniably the show's center, it's by no means a hammy Hamlet -- the actor uses remarkable restraint. During his many morbid soliloquys, an easy platform for grandstanding, Grimes remains stock-still at center stage, addressing the audience with introspective urgency.
In supporting roles, many of the Folger's regulars seem to be merely rehashing previous characterizations, but several performers impress, especially Emery Battis, who is wonderfully dotty as the wizened and (circuitously) wise Polonius; and Madeleine Potter, radiant as his pale, frail daughter Ophelia, who descends into madness when Hamlet breaks her heart.
HAMLET -- At the Folger Theater through April 28.