Great Hamlet, Not So Great Hamlet

Alas, poor SCR.

It's taken South Coast Repertory, one of the country's most distinguished regional theaters, 43 years to tackle Hamlet, the world's most analyzed, canonized, criticized and glorified play. It'd be nice to say it was worth the wait to see a world-class theater finally mount this towering pillar of the Western literary canon. But based on its current three-hour, buttock-numbing production, that would be a lie.

But not a big lie. There is a great deal that is very good about this Hamlet, beginning with the phenomenally talented Hamish Linklater. His is a magnetic, dynamic and eminently watchable Hamlet, and he's surrounded by some of the finest stage actors in Southern California.

While Linklater pulls the chariot as well as any Hamlet in recent memory, director Dan Sullivan's production doesn't smell much different from the legions of Hamlets that have marched before. In fact, without Linklater's spirited performance, this Hamletwould grind to a halt, as most everything but his performance seems wobbly or thinly constructed.

Sullivan is one of America's most respected stage directors, and he seems to stylistically suggest that his Hamletis concerned with more than just following Hamlet down his tragic path. Why else is Dull Gret, Brueghel's nightmarish 1562 vision of Hell pillaged by an army of peasant women, reproduced on the back wall? It's a jolting visual presence starkly contrasting with the depressingly muted color scheme of the set and costumes, which are heavy with browns, light greens and gray. As Hell's flames and demons erupt from behind it, the royal court drapes itself in dingy, threadbare attire.

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Whether these visual embellishments suggest things falling apart, centers collapsing, or a colorblind tailor designing the clothes of Elsinore Castle's occupants while a proto-surrealist tags its walls is anybody's guess. Ambiguity is no sin, but this seems like murky vision and questionable execution.

What isn't questionable is Linklater's brilliant turn. He nails the complexity and contradictions that make Hamlet one of literature's most fascinating protagonists. Sure, he's a jumbled mess of emotion and thought, but he's also acutely aware and rational. He's sensitive and imperceptive, crazy and stone-cold sober, vengeful and vacillating, gripped in existential angst and possessed of steel-eyed conviction. It's a powerful performance that doesn't confine this amazingly articulate character to some convenient psychological cell as much as free him to rage in all his erratic glory. By not positing a reason for Hamlet's paradoxical nature, Linklater (and, one guesses, Sullivan) makes him feel keenly human and relevant to contemporary audiences.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn't match Linklater's vigorous portrayal. Characters are either thinly drawn or come off oddly bloodless, a remarkable feat considering the rich talent onstage and equally rich passions infusing Hamlet's world.

The result is theatrical bipolarity: triumphantly engaging one moment, drearily prosaic the next. If the rest of this production matched Linklater's vibrancy—hell, even faintly echoed it—this Hamletwould rank among SCR's greatest successes.

Still, it does reinforce the genius of Shakespeare's greatest character and makes Hamlet feel as acutely real in 2007 as in 1602. Most theaters would be more than satisfied with a great Hamlet in an otherwise lackluster Hamlet. But for a theater like SCR, one that's crafted a sterling reputation by staging literate, thought-provoking plays, anything less than a spectacular mounting of perhaps the most literate and thought-provoking play of all feels disappointing.

Hamlet at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through July 1. $31-$60.

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