ACT Opens 50th Year With a Brilliant Performance as Hamlet

Harsh words for mother: John Douglas Thompson as Hamlet, Dominique Lozano as Gertrude
Harsh words for mother: John Douglas Thompson as Hamlet, Dominique Lozano as Gertrude

If ever you wondered whether to see another Hamlet, the strong, subtle and unfailingly compelling performance by John Douglas Thompson in the title role at ACT provides as good a reason as any I can imagine. Without ever overplaying the part, he makes Shakespeare’s words sing and brings a rare if not unique clarity to the speeches and soliloquies that have remained justifiably celebrated over the centuries: He imbues the famously melancholy Dane with the complex essence of a man torn by grief, doubt, rage, love, determination and a host of other emotions and attitudes, and never hits a false note.

If only something similar could be said about the entire production that opened the company’s 50th San Francisco season a few days ago, it would be an event worthy of celebration. Regrettably that’s not the case.

The venture was directed by Carey Perloff, starting her 25th and final year as ACT’s artistic director, and in some ways it recalls her early days at ACT’s helm. Having directed a small avant-garde theater in New York before coming west, she brought an envelope-pushing mindset to her new company and to the much larger Geary Theater. It didn’t work well, and before long she shifted to an approach that hewed closer to the mainstream and capable of luring substantial audiences to the Geary.

With this modern-dress Hamlet, she seems to have returned to that early attitude, delivering jolts and puzzles throughout the drama: in its setting, characterizations and even some of its stage business. To this viewer, the question “why?” arose time and again.

The tale unfolds amid towering walls that suggest a decrepit warehouse fashioned from concrete, grown filthy over ages. Piercing and adorning the structure are all manner of incongruous elements as well as two fabric scrims and one visual diffuser fashioned from translucent plastic. Among its stranger details are a roll-up gate that looks like the delivery entrance to a factory, a functioning shower and a steel door — a square perhaps two feet on each side — that swings open once, delivering an unforgettable jolt.

Although it occupies just one small moment in a theatrical tapestry that runs three hours, plus one intermission, that shock-inducing door encapsulates the audacity of Perloff’s Hamlet.

Late in the second act, after Ophelia’s suicide, we see Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes and a few others solemnly walking to the graveyard, to bury her. But there is no corpse or coffin to be seen. Where, we have to wonder, is the most important element of a funeral procession?

Then that small door swings open and, voila!, Ophelia’s rigid form emerges from where it had lain, as if in a morgue.

Steven Anthony Jones as the Ghost of the slain king; Thompson as his frightened son
Steven Anthony Jones as the Ghost of the slain king; Thompson as his frightened son

Although the cast of 13 includes several admirable ACT regulars, the production fails to show them in their best light.

Steven Anthony Jones does double duty as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and as his murderer, Claudius, misfiring as both. Jones’s Ghost lacks any hint of the robust traits that Hamlet attributes to his father, and his Claudius is essentially a one-note monarch with a penchant for declamatory shouting.

As Gertrude, Dominique Lozano handles her speeches serviceably but fails to indicate any real bond with either her son or her husband. She’s not alone in that weakness, however.

Convincing suggestions of emotional connection are rare commodities throughout, whether between Hamlet and Ophelia (Rivka Borek, in a portrait of descending frailty) or between the prince and his comrades, especially the loyal Horatio (a brittle Anthony Fusco). As Hamlet’s college buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Teddy Spencer and Vincent J. Randazzo project the air-headed silliness of an old-fashioned comedy team, without the slightest undertone to suggest that they too embody aspects of tragedy, that their shallow lives have some meaning.

Dan Hiatt draws a few laughs as Polonius and Teagle F. Bougere is appropriately vigorous and impetuous as Laertes, but neither brings enough humanity to his role to give poignancy to their deaths.

Several of the play’s brightest moments come from Graham Beckel’s work in two very different roles: in the fierce drama enacted by the Player King and in the sardonic wit of the loquacious Gravedigger. The characters are broadly drawn but Beckel brings credibility to their excesses.

Still, whatever the production’s strengths and weaknesses, this is Thompson’s show. This is his second sterling appearance with ACT, the first being knockout performance as Louis Armstrong in ACT’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf” last year. In New York and elsewhere, his work in many Shakespearean works as well as plays by Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Henrik Ibsen and many others has consistently earned glowing praise.

As ACT’s Hamlet, Thompson presents the art of acting in its finest, truest form. If that’s attraction enough for you, don’t miss it.

Hamlet runs through Oct. 15 in ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$105, from 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org

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