Review: ‘Hamlet’ at Compass Rose Theater

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Compass Rose Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne, is subtle and restrained, yet powerful. Wonderful acting and directing meet creative use of lighting and staging to make a small stage seem much larger, and create a suspenseful performance.

Hamlet (Phil Gillen) is a joy to watch. When he first appears, he stands in a corner apart from the crowd watching his mother and stepfather hold court, his arms crossed in protest. He comes across a young man trying to figure out his place in the world, and his protest against his mother’s quick remarriage is heartfelt. He delivers the famous soliloquies brilliantly, beginning softly and naturally, and building up to an emotional pitch. “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt” is directed at his mother’s empty chair; at one point, he sits in it. He begins “To be or not to be” sitting on the edge of the stage, before pulling out his dagger. In “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I” he pounds the stage with his fists in frustration. He keeps his emotions in tight check until just the right moment, and then they come flying out.

Ali Evarts as Ophelia. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Ali Evarts as Ophelia. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Ali Evarts gives a remarkable performance as Ophelia. at times heartbreaking. Her reaction to Hamlet’s “get thee to a nunnery” speech is powerful, recoiling in shock at his rage. Later, barefoot and wearing a dirty white sheet, she maniacally races around the stage, strikes herself, and frantically tries to grasp onto the other characters. She feels like someone who has lost her mind.

Galen Murphy-Hoffman gives his strongest performance as Claudius during his soliloquy, beginning on his throne and ending on his knees crying, attempting to pray and ask forgiveness. For just a moment, he becomes a sympathetic human being. His tenderness towards Gertrude (Mary Lauren) is truly loving as he holds her hand and looks longingly at her. Only towards the end does he turn into a scheming villain.

Mary Lauren’s most powerful moment comes with Hamlet in her bedroom. Her fear and pain come through clearly, as she shrinks from her son’s angry accusations. Reaching out to sooth him, she instead ends up on the floor with him, she weeping, he pleading. It is difficult to watch.

Steve Lebens gives a terrific performance as Polonius. The highlight is when he gives ponderous explanations for Hamlet’s madness. It drew plenty of laughs. His reaction to Hamlet’s mocking wordplay is priceless, caught between respecting the prince’s royal authority and trying to make sense of seemingly nonsensical sayings. His own propensity for aphorisms hold back Laertes in a comic moment.

Joseph Dalfonso’s Laertes has an imposing physical presence. He is the tallest of all the actors, and it lends his anger that much more ferocity. Accusing Claudius, and later Hamlet, he bellows with righteous rage, even striking Hamlet at one point. He could easily “cut his throat i’ th’ church.”  His duel with Hamlet is beautiful to watch, like a well-orchestrated ballet.

Joseph Leitess, as Horatio, gives his best performance at the play’s end, summing up the tragedy with quiet, noble determination, and facing the audience. He is also impressive trying to prevent Hamlet from speaking with the Ghost (Steve Lebens); only Hamlet pulling his dagger keeps him from holding back his friend.

Colton Needles and Grant Scherini, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern provide some much-needed physical comedy in their near identical tunics, only their different caps distinguishing them. The pull of their loyalties, between Hamlet and Claudius, makes for plenty of conflict.

The multi-talented Quincy Vicks, as The Player King, and Isabel Messina, The Player Queen, perform the play-within-a-play with restraint, making their point effectively. The Player King’s earlier dramatic performance is absolutely spellbinding, with the right amount of passion and emotion, but holding back just a bit. Vicks also plays Osric with a bit of flair, wearing a dark blue jacket, colorful leggings, and a red feather in his cap, as well as a flourish in his speech.

Joyce Liao’s Lighting Design sets the mood effectively. The Ghost (Steve Lebens) is kept in shadow, making his performance truly mysterious; the audience jumped when he appeared without warning. Claudius has a spotlight on him when he tries to pray, and it includes Hamlet when he enters the scene.

Lizzy Chapman’s costumes are simple, but capture the rank and nature of the characters, from royalty to peasant worker. Claudius wears a beige tunic with a black fur cloak, gold clasps holding it on. The Ghost, from what little can be seen of him, wears a knight’s armor. Gertrude switches from a purple, regal gown to a black and purple nightgown, giving her an even more alluring appearance. Ophelia’s white sheet makes her seem even more vulnerable.

Phil Gillen as Hamlet and Mary Lauren as the Queen. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Phil Gillen as Hamlet and Mary Lauren as the Queen. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Kudos to Stage Manager Ruth Cowgill. She has a tough job because the stage is split into two levels, with stairs leading to an upper floor, where there are two projecting balconies. Scenes frequently move from one level to the next, and many characters observe others from the upper level. It also allows for scenes to have multiple actions at the same time.

Once again, Lucinda Merry-Browne has directed her production with much passion. The actors work well together, and there is much chemistry, and they move around the stage naturally. They have captured the language perfectly, so that it falls “trippingly on the tongue.” Compass Rose Theater has risen to the challenge of putting on one of the greatest plays ever written in an intimate theater. Come experience it for yourself!

Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Hamlet plays through November 20, 2016, at Compass Rose Theater – 49 Spa Road, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 980-6662, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1553.gif

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