In Spreckels’ three-decade history, no Shakespeare play had been attempted until this month. Director Sheri Lee Miller, certainly less cautious than the delaying Hamlet, jumped adventurously into the Bard’s fray by presenting his longest, most complicated and most acclaimed tragedy, “Hamlet.”
“Hamlet” runs through Feb. 17, Fri., and Sat., 8 p.m., and Sundays, 2 p.m., along with a Valentine’s evening performance Feb. 14 beginning at 7 p.m. at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. (Box Office: (707) 588-3400, Wed. through Sat., noon to 5 p.m., and one hour before the show. Online: www.spreckelsonline.com.)
Clarity in delivering the storyline from the ghostly opening scene to the final benediction presented by the grieving Horatio is one of the many strengths of this production. No homework necessary: attend and enjoy the show. Every actor balances his or her part smoothly heeding Hamlet’s injunction to the players to not over act. Even Hamlet’s soliloquys require no intricate parsing or analysis. They are thoughts expressed to further the storyline.
Keith Baker’s characterization of Hamlet, smooth and calm, believable and sane, has just the edge to reveal Hamlet’s “antic disposition” without indulging in hyperbole. Just when Baker appears to be leading Hamlet over the edge with absurd headgear or exaggerated nodding of the head, he pulls back enough to reassure the audience that they are conspiring with him against whatever is rotten in Denmark. Baker, the consummate Hamlet, plays a multitude of roles but never lets the audience lose sight of the essential Hamlet.
The versatile and accomplished Danielle Cain matches well with the role of Queen Gertrude. (Was it just the other day or twenty some years ago that she played both Lear’s fool and Cordelia in the same production?) Cain never reveals whether Gertrude was Claudius’ conspirator but maintains an aura of innocence, a veil of ignorance, able to sustain a love for Claudius and Hamlet and a loving memory of old Hamlet. We believe her when she wishes that Ophelia and Hamlet could have been married.
Peter Downey portrays King Claudius the villain, the smirking scheming evildoer, so smoothly that Claudius appears to be an average guy caught up in his own ambitious schemes. His character invites a sympathetic view in his cloister scene when he realizes that he cannot fool God.
Ivy Rose Miller brings many things to life in her interpretation of Ophelia. Her exposition scene telling her father, Polonius, about Hamlet’s demise calls for double acting as she presents herself grieving for Hamlet, but also through describing Hamlet she becomes that character. In both the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene and the “play within the play” scene, Miller offers subtle, not outlandish, reactions to Hamlet’s bizarre behaviors. Best of all, she plays Ophelia’s mad scenes from Act IV with polish, not spitting madness.
Another well-known Sonoma County actor, Eric Thompson, plays Polonius as a garrulous and interfering but never mean-spirited father and statesman. The core of this character has a solid centering based on good intentions and a love for family.
Chris Ginesi as Laertes and Chad Yarish as Horatio serve as straight men to balance the humor produced by Hamlet and Polonius. Yarish has the yeoman task as Horatio to verify all from the ghost to the final actions of Hamlet. Ginesi as Laertes sustains the theme of family love from the lightness at the beginning to the heavy seriousness at the end.
Sherri Lee Miller’s creative team factored heavily into the total effect of this wonderful production. Set Designers Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen developed a bold but flexible scene with the appearance of gray blocks, large steps and a backdrop that began with a starry, cloudy sky all contributing to a sense of darkness and grandeur. Nancy Hayashibara composed original incidental music to complement the acting and the action. Costume Designer Pamela Johnson employed quiet lines sometimes highlighted with regal colors, usually simple but dignified costumes.
Since “Hamlet” has appeared many times in many places these past four hundred years, many variations of the play have been performed. Characters and scenes often depend on director choices for cuts and dramatizations. Well-balanced cuts left this production true to the original; each actor developed his or her own character as explorations prompted by Director Miller’s questions led to discoveries even up to opening night. One senses almost a family commitment to creating real characters that do not go over the top in their performances.
Spreckels’ “Hamlet” serves everyone from novice spectators to seasoned viewers. Seven more great opportunities allow witnessing the Bard’s masterpiece, the next two weekends. Imagine, with this success, Spreckels has thirty-six other great Shakespeare plays to offer us, having highly succeeded with the most complicated.