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The Theatregoer Hamlet

By David R. Ignatius

thru December 20 at Adams House

THERE IS a collection of essays called Hamlet: Enter Critic in which critics do their thing with what is perhaps the greatest work in English literature. They are essentially puzzled over the play's great enigma: what took hamlet so long in acting to avenge his dead father? Among the theories advanced are that Hamlet was fat, and consequently moved slowly in doing anything; that Hamlet hand an Oedipal relationship with his mother and therefore blamed himself for his father's death; and finally, an Elizabethan determinist interpretation that Hamlet's humours mixed in such a way that he was always by nature melancholy and lethargic. There is also a Marxist interpretation, contrived, I guess, by some lonely Russian critic with nothing better to do.

In a way this foolish little book serves only to exalt the greatness of Hamlet, because Hamlet, written in that wonderful time before people put critical labels on things, encompasses all of the theories and a great deal more. When facing a work of genius, criticism can only "take a line": single-out certain elements exalt them, and finally label them as "what the play is about." Unfortunately, many directors are just critics, and love to highlight themes they like at the expense of the work as a whole.

The Adams House Drama Society production of Hamlet "takes a line" too, but it's really an anti-line. The director, Poc de Grazia, wants to let all the characters come across as they are, not as Hamlet interprets them in his own head. This is fortunate because de Grazia also plays Hamlet, which might have otherwise led to a one-dimensional ego-trip production. There is thus no undirectional theme with all the characters a collective midwife to some zinging, overwhelming closing statement. Rather, the portrayals are loose and disjunct, and that serves finally to heighten the senselessness of the tragedy. The tragic climax is not the clear and unavoidable result of certain obvious flaws in the characters. In this sense the production, perhaps inadvertantly, denies the Greek therapy of tragic catharsis, but I think that's good because the notion that there can be "meaningful" or "uplifting" death in a non-political context has always seemed like bullshit.

De Grazia plays Hamlet well. He destroys the fine line between Hamlet's "feigned" madness and the real madness that comes to envelop him, making them indistinguishable, except by arbitrary definition. He is always moving in frenetic anguish, yet retains a sense of the ridiculousness of his own actions and those of everyone else.

WARREN MOTLEY is an unusually sympathetic Polonius-less pompous than confused. Michael Ladner and Celestine are very good as Polonius's children, Laertes and Ophelia. Each plays his character very young, and the scene in which they say goodbye to each other as Laertes leaves for Wittenburg is a delight-Laertes trying to be big brother while Ophelia teases and hugs him.

Mike Sachs as Claudius and Kathy Allyn as Gertrude were not as good as some of the others. I was told that Sachs was trying to play Claudius as a Machiavellian Prince. He succeeded only insofar as he was extremely unemotional and dry throughout, save for occasional shouts and arrgghhs. Miss Allyn wasn't bad. She played Gertrude a little like Kanga in Winnie the Pooh. Which may be about right, because Gertrude is always so concerned and motherly, even, we suppose, as she helps murder old King Hamlet.

It's always interesting to see how the ghost scenes in Shakespeare are played. De Grazia has Fletcher Word, a black actor, play the Ghost from atop a platform. Word dressed entirely in black, moves with a mime's precision through Oriental poses, enshrouded always in a huge cape. The effect is very striking.

Word also doubles as the Player King and the gravedigger. Tying together the Ghost and the Player King is a superb stroke, since characters hint at magical other realities. One never really knows whether the Ghost really exists, or is rather imagined by some of the characters. "Reality" is likewise broken down in the device of staging a play within the play: The Murder of Gonzago, which is also the story of a king murdered by his wife and her lover. Since Word plays both the murdered king in The Murder of Gonzago and the dead king's ghost in the play itself, one wonders if the murder is actually happening again. Because given the dramatic context, either both are real or neither is. In having the same actor play both the key "magic" roles, de Grazia adds an unusual mystical quality to good old Hamlet.

This is no great production of Hamlet, but it's not bad either. Most fortunately, the cast has not conspired to try to outdo the work. They have fun with Hamlet: avoid being over-serious or self-important, and that's refreshing in a production of a classic.

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