STAGE REVIEW : Splendid 'Hamlet'--Both the Actor and the Play


The programs, posters and press releases for Thomas F. Bradac's staging of "Hamlet" for Shakespeare Orange County retain the often dropped "Prince of Denmark" as the last three words of the title.

With good reason: Wayne Alexander's Hamlet is every inch a prince. And the designers place us squarely in deepest, darkest Denmark.

Alexander speaks, moves, sighs and fights with regal grace. This Hamlet has learned his formal lessons well; he hardly needs any additional schooling, which he initially sees as an escape from his agony at home.

He takes us through Hamlet's soliloquies with singular clarity, and he dances through his would-be mad scenes with intrepid wit. Yet there is more than formal training at work here.

When Alexander bleeds, his blood is red, not blue. He loses patience with himself, and he loses his royal composure altogether in his final encounters with the two women in his life, embracing and rejecting them with a fervor that verges on real madness.

In short, a splendid Hamlet, worthy of any stage, anywhere.

Among the rest of the cast at the Waltmar Theatre, on the Chapman University campus, Elizabeth Norment's Gertrude is the most distinctive interpretation.

Behind her plastic smile, her eyes look dazed, as if she's inwardly reeling from the rapid changes in her life. But she leans on two crutches: her new husband and booze. After watching her take a stiff drink simply to survive the chatter of Polonius, it's not surprising when she insists on her inadvertently fatal quaff as she watches her son fight Laertes.

Nowadays, one could picture this queen checking into Betty Ford or saying to herself: "My name is Gertrude, and I am an alcoholic."

Not that Norment acts drunk. She stays a few swallows away from tipsy, but the suggestion is there all the same. She also looks hardly older than her son; imagining at what age she gave birth helps us understand why she clings to her crutches.

Carl Reggiardo's oily Claudius, Daniel Bryan Cartmell's dithering Polonius and Melanie van Betten's heartbreaking Ophelia provide outstanding support. Van Betten goes from girlish giggles to a mad scene in which she bares all for a brief moment.

Among the major players, only Sean Heyman as Laertes is occasionally difficult to understand. His vowels are unduly elongated. Laertes' schools apparently weren't on the same level as Hamlet's--which, it might be argued, draws the contrast between them all the more.

So is it nothing but a mostly well-acted, traditional "Hamlet"?

Not quite. A directorial notion wanders around in the form of actress Kelleigh Holloway. She opens the play with a scene Shakespeare never wrote, though perhaps he considered it for "Macbeth"--she's a white-faced witch, cackling as she descends from the top of E. Scott Shaffer's forbiddingly gloomy castle to a circle of light in center stage, where she snatches a crown out of the light and absconds with it into the darkness.

Later she's an eavesdropper and then a less secretive observer of scenes that take place beneath her. She has a bit part as one of the Players, then she's the English ambassador at the end, announcing that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead," still in white-face.

Her overarching function is never clear. She's a stump-the-audience game, a half-baked stab at a "concept," serving only to distract from Bradac's otherwise remarkably lucid interpretation.

Finally, a word about the Ghost, as played by Steve McCue. Sound designer Craig Brown makes the audience jump with the Ghost's repeated commands to "Swear." But unless I blinked and missed it, the Ghost himself hardly jumped at all when the cock signaled the onset of day, as prescribed in the text.

No matter. With GroveShakespeare, Orange County now has two professional Shakespeare companies up and running rather well. Not many counties can claim as much.

"Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 301 E. Palm St., Orange. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 30. $18-$23. (714) 744-7016. Running time:3 hours, 5 minutes.

Wayne Alexander: Hamlet

Carl Reggiardo: Claudius

Elizabeth Norment: Gertrude

Daniel Bryan Cartmell: Polonius

Sean Heyman: Laertes

Melanie van Betten: Ophelia

Michael Nehring: Horatio

Steve McCue: Ghost of the late king/Gravedigger

Chris Duval: Rosencrantz

William Gillean: Guildenstern

Mark Ciglar: Marcellus/Player King/Osric

Charles Cook: Bernardo/Fortinbras

J. Dustin Milberg: Francisco/Lucianus

David Dah:l Reynaldo/Priest

Cheryl Crabtree: Player Queen

Kelleigh Holloway: Prologue

Dorothy Drysdale: Gentlewoman

Teresa Pond, Jolin Harrison: Players

Kamella Tate: Voice and text

A Shakespeare Orange County production. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Thomas F. Bradac. Sets E. Scott Shaffer. Costumes Lyndall Otto. Lights David C. Palmer. Sound Craig Brown. Make-up Gary Christiansen. Stage manager Nancy A. Petrella. Fight choreography Wayne Alexander. Hair styles Karen Juneman.

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