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High School Students Get a Look at World of Hamlet

A blue-wigged graduate student, wearing a funky jacket and shades, stands on stage, fielding questions from a stern professorial voice about “Hamlet” in his Master of Fine Arts oral examination.

Was Hamlet insane? Why does he set up the play within the play? Why didn’t he kill Claudius while he prayed? What is the role of Fortinbras?

Since the student, Stanley Riddlebone, is an actor, he elects to illustrate points by acting out scenes from the play. He sheds his wig and jacket and, dressed in black, with a sword at his hip, proceeds to do about a half dozen segments that, with the help of three other actors playing seven other characters from the play, take the story from the first sighting of the ghost of Hamlet’s father to Hamlet’s death and the arrival of the conquering Fortinbras.

Such is the latest offering of NewWorks Theatre’s “Play by Play” series, designed to introduce classics to city and county high school students. Now in its fourth season, NewWorks presents “The Strange Case of the Prince of Denmark” through today at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse and will tour school campuses through next week.

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It’s a pleasant, compact show--obviously low budget in terms of costumes and set--and kept down to 50 minutes to accommodate high school schedules. One does wish for less of an emphasis on whether Hamlet was insane or not (come on guys, you know he wasn’t) and more on why “Hamlet” has continued to fascinate audiences and be one of the greatest and most challenging roles a performer can face. But when the task is to trim the story to under an hour, it is understandable that the production avoids the meatier questions.

So instead of a main course, what NewWorks offers is a very appealing appetizer--nothing fancy, just some down-home cooking with care.

The director, Kent L. Brisby, has called upon a reliable pool of local talent to juggle the parts. They don’t do any startling turns, but they deliver their parts clearly and cleanly, revealing the humor and the urgency behind what is probably unfamiliar language to the youthful audience. Tim Reilly, who did nice work in “Transfusion,” the new Janet Schecter Tiger play that played last Thursday on the Lyceum main stage, turns in a credible job as Riddlebone and a severely abridged Hamlet (don’t expect to meet Ophelia or hear the “To be or not to be” speech). Tim Irving, who created a strong Arnold Beckoff last year in the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Torch Song Trilogy” moves nicely from foolish Polonius to Hamlet’s tormented uncle.

Mickey Mullaney, another familiar face both behind the scenes as director (the Grand Guignol plays for the Bowery Theatre) and in front as actress (the California Young Playwrights Project at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre), does Gertrude and a sailor. As the queen, she hits a surface reading that works well enough for a show that emphasizes plot, but she fails to project even a glimmer of the guilt that would convey a suggestion of her character’s depths. Charles Salter, who plays three roles, is uneven as Horatio and the ship captain, but forceful as Fortinbras. Jim Morley is too kindly to be funny as the professor who keeps getting Riddlebone’s name wrong--Griddlebone? Kidneystone? He would have a better shot at humor if he injected some John Houseman or James Earl Jones thunder and bluster into his academic inquisition.

John Bryan Davis, whose costumes seem to pop up at every small theater in San Diego these days, is credited with costume accessories. It’s a telling description of what these actors get to work with--the king’s “ermine” robe over a brown shirt and gray slacks. But then it’s important to remember that NewWorks is only charging one dollar for each student’s admission. (The charge for busing the play to a school is about $400).

The simple, uncredited set surprises with sudden flashes of sparkle--the suggestion of a stained glass window revealed in the scene in the chapel where Claudius tries to pray, and a ghost floating behind a scrim, nicely lit by Sam Hartsack. The moody, uncredited music enhances this show’s emphasis on the mysterious.

The production concludes with a question-and-answer session. At Wednesday’s 9:30 performance the questions were scarce and there was some confusion about who was soliciting and answering them. That, and the title--"The Strange Case of the Prince of Denmark"--however, are the weakest elements in what is otherwise a worthwhile glimpse into the pleasures a full presentation of “Hamlet” has to offer.

Performances at 9:30 and 11 a.m. today at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego.

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