Mendocino Beacon Reviews ‘Hamlet’

Review from The Mendocino Beacon, Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Traveling Shakespeareans, local actors deliver on ‘Hamlet’

Review by Frank Hartzell

Since that spring day in 1603 when the Chamberlain’s Men first performed “Hamlet,” the story of something being rotten in Denmark has become the world’s most famous play.

Watching Hugh Dignon play Hamlet at Lions Hall in Fort Bragg on Saturday night, the Bard’s language was as intoxicating and the satire as pertinent as it was 400 years ago.

Top local actors and traveling thespians from places like Ashland are offering “Hamlet” every Friday and Saturday night for the next three weeks. The raucous “Rocky Horror” plays Wednesdays and Thursdays, with music by Steven Bates. On Sundays both plays are staged.

Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” with the greatest actor of the day, the chunky and histrionic Richard Burbage, in mind as the tragic prince to deliver lines like “To be or not to be? That is the question.”

Hamlet terrifies us about how thin is the line between “being” and physical and psychiatric death. When Wall Street bankers or Danish kings practice greed and refuse to take responsibility for their actions, that line, and thus civilized “being” itself, vanishes. Murder, seduction, jealousy and foolish wars ensue in a downward spiral of human passion.

But Wall Street, Frank? There is one famous line by Polonius that could have saved us all: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”

Most of all, the bard set this play in a place unfamiliar to his audience so the timeless and universal message of the lethal effects of insane greed wouldn’t get lost in his fun of mocking political leaders, pointing out the senselessness of war and one very good lawyer joke.

Director Dignon, with experience at top Shakespeare festivals, provides the necessary dramatic weight as Hamlet to deliver on another timeless line from the play; “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Dignon delivers Hamlet’s light-hearted faked insanity while manifesting the indecisiveness, sadness and mania of real bipolar disorder. Books written in the 20th century marvel at Shakespeare’s pre-Freudian insight into mental illness.

An even more amazing accomplishment is converting the utilitarian Lions Hall into a stage fit for a king and an atmosphere intimate for the entire audience. The actors were close enough to touch for nearly everyone on hand.

There are several performances in themselves worth seeing the play for. Alena Guest is queenly as Hamlet’s mom Gertrude and even dies with grace.

Ashland Shakespeare’s Jonathan Haugen as the repentant Laertes and as the ghost also helped tentman Matt Rowland and Eileen Wolfe design the set.

Although another well-known line from this play is “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest work. Dignon fast forwards set changes and actor entrances, bringing in this performance at a slim and quick three and a half hours. Multi-media work by Todd Cinnamon and Lavender Kent of Studiothirtyone.net also moved the play along with dramatic video, such as the marching of invading Norwegian troops and a lyrical death scene for Ophelia.

Dignon takes another famous line seriously for the play itself: “This above all, to thine own self be true.”

The intimacy with the actors and simplicity of sets and costumes made me feel I was seeing it in the way the Chamberlain’s men performed it. Dignon staged the play forward in time about 200 years, but I still puzzled over some apparent anachronisms, such as muskets and a straightjacket. I also thought that when Hamlet called a sycophant a “sponge,” that too was out of place, but I was wrong: The super absorbent sea creatures were in use in 1599 when the play was written.

I did need something to land me in the correct century. But another line from the play comes quickly to mind: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

This was an incredible performance for anywhere, much less Fort Bragg, and it deserves a full house. The youngest member of the audience, Jamieson Clawson, 13, told me at intermission he had hoped “Rocky Horror” would be his first play and had been disappointed about the prospect of three hours.

“This is awesome,” he said, saying he was surprised he could follow the dialog.

After the play he said it only got better. “The end really got me,” he said.

Come to this play onstage through Feb. 22 and you will see why Hamlet says, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”