Psych Out

The titular character in William Shakespeare's most storied play is a magnificently rendered piece of work. Complicated and ambiguous, flawed and frustrating, Hamlet is a genuine Everyman, able to accommodate the views of any who need to explain, claim or complain about him. Aye, verily, he doth contain multitudes.

Which of those multitudes a director and actor choose to focus on is always an intriguing question.Will he be the Prince of Neurotics or the visceral, virile agent of medieval vengeance?

In Shakespeare Orange County's current production of Hamlet, he's a bit of everything—which makes this production directed by Thomas F. Bradac both unique and disappointing.

The leading Shakespearean director, if not scholar, in Orange County, Bradac has never masked his disdain for directors who approach Hamlet—or any Shakespeare—with the insights of modern psychology. In Bradac's view, Hamlet is as Hamlet does. Rather than a brooding Hamlet wrestling with inner demons and rife with subtext, Bradac favors a Hamlet who is all surface, one who follows Shakespeare's script to the letter. He broods one minute and laughs the next. He's a tortured son missing his father in one scene and a cunning saboteur in another. He's still complicated, but rather than following some deeply submerged agenda that neatly links the mercurial personality changes, this Hamlet is more like turbulent weather—periods of calm and serenity followed by lightning and thunder and then drizzle and fog.

Under Bradac's direction, Nathanial Justiniano makes for a quite entertaining, even likable Hamlet. His Hamlet is young both in appearance (Justiniano looks like he's just out of college on the four-year plan) and approach. This isn't a cerebral Hamlet caught up in his own psychic drama; the most complicated thing about this guy is the vast range of inexplicable emotions he's feeling. More than anything, this Hamlet seems like a very young man who lacks the tools to get what he really wants: revenge. He isn't paralyzed by a crisis of self-confidence so much as stymied by his simple lack of experience.

This approach doesn't make for the most compelling Hamlet, however.Because we know this story so well, and because it is so rich with possible interpretations, it's almost anticlimactic to watch any Hamletthat doesn't reach for something more universal. Other productions of Hamlethave floated the possibility that he wants to pork his mother, that his is a classic generational conflict, that he's a neurotic whose experience is an illusion. The variety of interpretations reinforces what appears to be Bradac's take on his subject: that Shakespeare was, if nothing else, a remarkably powerful observer of the human condition. If Shakespeare didn't categorize the internal—Oedipal, generational, neurotic—he mapped the external in such detail that, four centuries later, analysts and amateurs take his Hamlet seriously enough to diagnose him.

Intelligent minds can disagree on Bradac's non-interpretive interpretation, but what the hell is up with the costumes? It seems Bradac ordered his cast to grab whatever clothes were lying on their bedroom floors and come to work. Most of the dudes are wearing Dockers, and others dress in modern suits or standard-issue fatigues, suggesting this is a contemporary Shakespeare. If so, why is Hamlet still carting around a dagger? And why is there fencing? There is a costume designer listed for this production, but I'm not sure what she did; most of the time, this Hamletfelt like a production of Old Navy.

Less vexing are the performances, particularly those contributed by a couple of Shakespeare Orange County stalwarts: Carl Reggiardo, who understands that Claudius must possess great nobility in order to belie his dastardly intent, and Michael Nehring, one of the most likeable Poloniuses I've ever seen. The rest of the cast, with the exception of Hillary Bauman's poignant Ophelia and Elizabeth Taheri's sensitive Gertrude, isn't always capable of getting its mouth around the Elizabethan dialogue.

In essence, this is not a Hamletthat monkeys around with the material or plays games with the audience. From the constant direct addresses to the audience to the fact that Bradac always puts the words first, this is a faithful staging (if you ignore the costumes). It may not make for an electrifying Hamlet or force you to reconsider previously held opinions, but it's one of the most accessible productions of this overanalyzed piece of work you're likely to see.

Hamlet by Shakespeare Orange County at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, 301 E. Palm St., Orange, (714) 744-7016. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $20-$25.

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