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Hamlet in Austin—Taut, Swift and Gripping Hot

Michael Meigs
Written by Michael Meigs     September 27, 2010    
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Hamlet in Austin—Taut, Swift and Gripping

Photos: Kimberley Mead

  • Hamlet
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Adapted by Jill K. Swanson
  • Scottish Rite Theatre
  • September 16 - October 3, October 21 - November 7, 2010
Acting 5
Costumes 4
Sets 4
Directing 4
Overall 4

Those lustrous eyes, that bony frame, that complexion sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought—many of us in Austin, Texas believe that Justin Scalise was born to play Hamlet.

He has certainly trained for Shakespeare, and for this role, in New Orleans, in England, and for the past three years in Austin. We have seen him as Bottom, Feste, Adam & Silvius, Don John, Mercutio and Lucio. And even Hamlet, freeze-dried, for Austin Shakespeare's 2008 and 2009 World's Fastest Hamlet.

This Hamlet directed by Andrew Matthews for the Scottish Rite Theatre is a keen, intelligent, entertaining and gripping production. Scalise has the principal role but this evening offers much more than just an outing for his fan club.

The cast knows how to speak the speech. Babs George as Gertrude, Harvey Guion as Claudius, Robert Deike as a whole suite of ordinaries, Brock England as Horatio, Chuck Ney as Polonius—the verse comes trippingly on those tongues. It's a thrill to hear it delivered articulately, with convincing scansion and appropriate targeting and emotion. The action is swift but unerringly certain. There are moments when one would like to see a bubble of silence as a character reflects or absorbs the meaning of something just said. But anyone who has studied the play, read it or seen any other version of Hamlet will follow the players all the way and will be on the edge of his seat.

Matthews has put them into contemporary costume but does not burden the play with unnecessary concept or gimmickry. No telephoning in performances, no AK-47s, no roller skates or cowboy hats. The familiar, haunting action develops immediately before us in the intimacy of the Scottish Rite Theatre, using a minimum of portable furniture placed as needed before various of its intricate trompe-l'oeuil 19th century painted backdrops. The striking, appropriate music before the play is recorded.

In this version, the play's the thing.

The company has tailored it so that several of them play multiple roles. For example, Deike becomes in turn Reynaldo, noting down Polonius's instructions about spying on Laertes; the head player, with a theatric and assured delivery of the speech of Troy, Priam and Hecuba; and a pragmatic, indifferent gravedigger. Claudius elects to send Osric off as the emissary to old Norway—giving me some momentary misgivings—but Trey Deason comes back with the due good news, even if he is wearing his foppish red hat.

Harvey Guion's Claudius has the earnest, urging cheerfulness of a salesman who's worried that his goods have begun to lose their attraction to the public. He thinks he's playing a middle game and even in his moment of dubious contrition this Claudius doesn't appear really to believe he got it wrong. Babs George's Gertrude is not complicit with him but is rather an impressively well dressed mother trying to hold the family together. Her consternation at the confrontation with Hamlet is harrowing.

Chuck Ney's Polonius is a dusty old duffer in a tweed jacket, rather the droll stereotype of a university professor (his role in real life, as it happens, David Meissner, Rob Novak in the theatre department at Texas State Department). Polonius is no idiot, even if at times he does ramble on.

Matthews put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into yobbo outfits and directed them so that they come across as fuzzy contemporary Danish versions of lager louts. R&G cannot match Hamlet in wit, but one doubts that he'd have had anything to do with such lowlifes in Wittenberg. Rob Novak and David Meissner at times seemed to have wandered over from the aggressively counterculture Austin Drama Club, where Novak played his own Hamlet last December.

I admired Julia Lorenz-Olsen. She chides her brother Laertes (Patrick Kaufmann) with sisterly grace and whimsy. As events proceed we see her vulnerability; her emotions are always visible despite her efforts to contain them. Lorenz-Olsen is as ripe as a late season peach, and her madness is apt in a universe where reverses and catastrophes overwhelm simplicity and openness.

Graceful comic moments relieve our tension as the tragedy is woven inexorably around us. Soldier Marcellus (Toby Minor) starts guiltily at Hamlet's rant on the ramparts against drunkenness. Ophelia and Laertes share a smile and silently mime Polonius' familar advice. Gravedigger Deike neatly one-ups the second gravedigger (Toby Minor again) in a drinking exchange.

There's some enigmatic business involving that cross on a chain around Hamlet's neck, which ends up in the hands of a bewildered Horatio (Brock England).

Which brings us back to Scalise and the overall experience of the Matthews/Scalise Hamlet. My advice: go. Go twice. See what this focused, well-spoken, taut player does with the character who has haunted him. They jointly inhabit a swift and moving performance. They portray for us us a perceptive, energetic man of spirit, appalled that the world can betray so much promise with such evil.

If it be now, then at the Scottish Rite Theatre at 18th and Lavaca downtown, to October 3; if it be not now, yet 'tis to come, October 21 to November 7 in the confines of the Boggy Creek Cemetery on Circle S Road in south Austin. For the second run, produced by Black Swan Productions, most of the players will be the same but Ashley Edwards will take the role of Gertrude.

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