Hamlet in Wonderland

Steven Skybell stars in Hamlet

No one has actually said this -- at least no one official -- but I'll go out on a limb and guess that Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern in Karin Coonrod's current production of Hamlet are dressed as characters from Alice in Wonderland. How else do you explain those costumes? Ophelia wears a bizarre powder-blue dress, inflated at the hips like the dress of someone falling down a hole; Gertrude speaks in a high squeaky voice like the Queen of Hearts; Claudius just looks odd; and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look exactly like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The complication is that everyone else, except Hamlet, seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel set in Nazi Germany, or else a José Posada collection of Day of the Dead calaveras; and that Horatio sounds Caribbean. Have I covered everyone? Polonius? Could he be the Mad Hatter? No, that's Osric. Oh, damn.

The second show in this season's Cal Shakes Festival isn't bad, apart from its lofty concepts. The acting is brisk and solid and everyone seems to have a great time. The cast in the season's first show, Taming of the Shrew, had an equal amount of fun, and the result was a hilarious, brightly costumed comedy. Hamlet, though, is tragedy. It needs catharsis. And although Coonrod's production works in a lot of surprising ways -- mainly by resisting audience expectations -- it also fails to create the gravitas suggested by its own reminders of death.

The show opens with Scene 2, in the court at Elsinore. Some sort of word-collage summarizes Scene 1. We get a thin reminder, through the PA system, of ghosts and something-not-quite-right-in-Denmark before Claudius appears to give his pompous speech. He paces a square midstage platform, marked off with poles to form a sort of open box, and the rest of the court, in full Alice costume, stands cramped in one corner, turning as a group to follow Claudius' movements. It's goofy. But the director restricts her mockery of Claudius' kingship to the costumes and blocking; James Carpenter (as Claudius) is allowed to deliver his lines in a balanced and subtle voice.

Details

By William Shakespeare. Directed by Karin Coonrod. Produced by the California Shakespeare Festival. Starring Steven Skybell, James Carpenter, Gerald Hiken, Karen Grassle, and Stacy Ross. At the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Boulevard in Orinda, through July 22. Admission is $10-38; call (510) 548-9666.

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Hamlet resembles a Brett Easton Ellis character in this scene, wearing black clothes and shades, but when he decides to go mad and sheds his sense of fashion he appears to be the only human person on the stage. His rumpled clothes and loose cuffs contrast so well with the Alice costumes that his family and friends, for all their sane words, look like ninnies. In this sense Coonrod's concept works. According to a piece in the Chronicle, the open box at midstage represents Hamlet's heart, so the idea may be that we're watching a mad little drama of Hamlet's emotional life, as opposed to a dream in Alice's head. Well, very nice. It would work as subtext if there weren't so many other concepts lying around.

Steven Skybell gives a fierce and sometimes tortured performance as Hamlet. He starts off with too much intensity, but when the script catches up to his energy level, his speeches turn out well. The soliloquy after his father's ghost asks for revenge is especially strong -- Skybell raves around in the aisles on the edge of self-control. But the energy isn't applied well enough to carry Hamlet convincingly through his spells of obsessive doubt and final compulsion, so the very last scene feels rote.

Every scene with the ghost is strange, in one way or another. Coonrod uses a recording of Harold Bloom, the critic, for the ghost's lines, and Bloom's voice is fascinating. It sounds tender, melancholy, but pampered, lacking the militaristic inflections we expect of a king who's spent much of his life in full armor. Still, Bloom knows his Shakespeare, and the speeches are hypnotic. The problem is that Soren Oliver, as the ghost's body, looks like a pale Pillsbury Doughboy in tuxedo tails, with a fattish white-painted face behind a gray visor that could also be a grimacing Balinese mask. Or maybe a horse face? Is he the horse-helmeted White Knight, from Through the Looking Glass? Who the hell knows? Things go a little better in Gertrude's bedroom scene, where the ghost is a powerful spotlight aimed at Hamlet's eyes.

Gerald Hiken is never un-entertaining as Polonius, growling his blowhard advice -- in fact he's the strongest actor on the stage -- and Karen Grassle does good work as Gertrude, both as the girlish-voiced, airhead queen and the desperate, imploring mother. Stacy Ross does well enough as Ophelia, but she's miscast. She's too strong a personality to play such a withering leaf. Soren Oliver is a decent gravedigger, although why he speaks in a Southern accent I have no idea; Patrick Kerr is good especially as Osric and the Player King. In fact, the Day of the Dead-style dumb show and shadow play performed by the players for Claudius and the rest fit in with a beautiful strangeness.

Coonrod's experiments with Hamlet are interesting, and the cast's energy makes the play fresh and direct. Watching Shakespeare in Orinda these days puts me in a good mood. But here it comes at the price of a diluted climax, with so much unusual business onstage you neglect to watch the duel. Is Horatio putting on a German or a Caribbean accent? How come the Polish soldiers look like Nazis? Why is Fortinbras a woman? Such high concept o'ercrows the spirit, and Hamlet nearly forgets to die.

 
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