Proving once again that free Shakespeare beneath the summer stars does not necessitate a compromise in quality, the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival opens its fifth season on the grounds of California Lutheran University with that mother ship of the Bard's plays, "Hamlet."
Sporting a rock-solid cast and upgraded stage facilities, the production is directed by David Ellenstein, who formerly played the melancholy Dane for his father Robert Ellenstein's Los Angeles Repertory Company.
Here, Brett Elliott is a forceful presence who convincingly depicts Hamlet's transition from grief to vengeful rage upon the discovery that his royal father had been murdered by his ambitious uncle Claudius (Niall Padden). Bucking tradition, Elliott's reading downplays Hamlet's penchant for subtle intellectual analysis and his accompanying susceptibility to paralyzed indecision--rather, he's an action figure stymied more by circumstance than by his own limitations. Though it cedes some complexity of character, the choice keeps the piece moving briskly.
Padden's Claudius proves a superb opponent--shrewd, penetrating and willing to flaunt his power. The lusty chemistry between Claudius and Hamlet's mother (Ruth Cordell) effectively stokes the Prince's wrath.
Ellenstein's familiarity and keen insight into the mechanics of the play are evident not only in his lucid staging, which keeps the story lines clear, but in his playful embellishments. One of these occurs during the classically pedantic lecture by Polonius (Robert Nairn, oozing smug sanctimony) to his departing son, Laertes (Derek Medina, who could safely make the character less of a lunkhead)--throughout the speech, Ophelia (Julia Coffey) teases her father behind his back. The little touch adds much-needed breadth to Ophelia, and Coffey makes the most of it.
Another sly directorial touch involves a recurring gag about the difficulty everyone has confusing the scheming couriers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Kevin P. Kern, Jason Rennie)--no one else can tell them apart, so why should Claudius and Hamlet? Happily, such well-considered flourishes never clash with the text. The limited reserved seating has been augmented, but the majority of the lawn remains free--and a fine venue to introduce Shakespeare's best-known play to youngsters.
* "Hamlet," Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks. This Friday-Sunday, 8 p.m.; also July 20-22, 8 p.m. Pre-show picnicking and entertainment from 5:30 p.m. Ends July 22. Free lawn seating, with limited reserve bleachers, $5; seats, $10; lawn boxes, $25. (805) 493-3455. Running time: 3 hours.