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Antaeus Theatre Company presents a brisk, if not especially resonant, ‘Hamlet’

Ramón de Ocampo and Adam J. Smith in the Antaeus Theatre Co. production of "Hamlet."
Ramón de Ocampo and Adam J. Smith in the Antaeus Theatre Co. production of “Hamlet.”
(Frank Ishman )

“Hamlet” is a daunting prospect for everyone. The marathon length of the play — Shakespeare’s longest — raises the stakes for actors and audiences alike.

Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet, which opened Saturday at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale, meets the challenge with speed and efficiency. Director Elizabeth Swain keeps the pace as brisk as possible.

The actors don’t dally or fiddle for motivation. They speak the line and move on with the story — quickly.

Ramón de Ocampo, who plays Hamlet, broods and sulks as any Hamlet must. But he’s not permitted endless time for navel-gazing. He delivers his soliloquies as though he has rehearsed them with a stopwatch.

De Ocampo understands that he has a long tragedy to get through. There’s no time for dawdling, even if Hamlet happens to be the world’s most famous procrastinator.

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Unlike the travesty of “King Lear” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the Antaeus production of “Hamlet” is straightforward and fairly traditional. No one wears silly sunglasses or makes videoconference calls. There’s no confusing tragedy for romp.

The play’s the thing, to quote Hamlet, though it’s not always clear what’s inspiring this revival. Swain’s interpretation of the drama is modest. The focus is on beats, acting moments, rather than more sweeping arcs. Scenes, scrupulously played, succeed each other without a fresh understanding of the tragedy coming into view.

Antaeus is an actor-driven company that has been committed to keeping the classic repertoire alive. The main goal of this production would seem to be to provide a group of performers the opportunity to test themselves in one of the greatest plays ever written.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it? Well, yes and no.

If you’re a member of the theater community and want to keep tabs on your colleagues’ development, then this production is for you. If you’re someone who wants to be reminded of the plot of “Hamlet,” then this crisp rendition will certainly satisfy.

But what provoked this reinvestigation of the play at this particular historical moment and for this specific Los Angeles community remains a mystery. Reason not the need, I can hear Lear bellowing. Art doesn’t need justification. But shouldn’t such a gigantic undertaking come inflamed with purpose?

Competence, of course, is nothing to sneeze at. And Swain’s staging is nothing if not respectfully intelligent.

The spare and unobtrusive production design conjures a painterly atmosphere of high tension and intrigue. Stephen Gifford’s scenic design imagines an Elsinore of granite surface and martial geometry. The lighting of Jared A. Sayeg thickens the foggy shadows with a sense of foreboding. Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes split the difference between conventional and modern.

Three actors perform onstage.
Peter Van Norden, Gregg T. Daniel, Veralyn Jones in the Antaeus Theatre Company production of “Hamlet.”
(Jenny Graham)

Swain has gathered a diverse group of performers to take on roles they might not have the opportunity to play in a more high-profile situation. The general level of the acting among the principals is solid.

Gregg T. Daniel makes Claudius all the more wickedly formidable for maintaining such a reasonable façade. If he’s less effective as the Ghost, it has more to do with the clumsy staging and cumbersome garb than his howling bombast.

Veralyn Jones’ Gertrude reveals an unapologetically strong will. She doesn’t seem initially all that bothered that her son is obviously disgusted with her for marrying his uncle so soon after the death of his father. But when Hamlet accuses his mother of being part of the murder plot, Jones’ Gertrude appears both emotionally and morally stricken. This is a queen who feels more than she is wont to show.

Jeanne Syquia’s matter-of-fact Ophelia seems at first saner than anyone else at court. She clutches a locket Hamlet gives her at the start of the play, but her loyalty to her father prevents her from deciphering the prince’s madness. When she loses everything, her mind cracks. But even her mental breakdown seems rational.

The prowess of veteran Peter Van Norden is one of the production’s chief pleasures. His Polonius prates on foolishly without losing his essential dignity. And as the Gravedigger, Van Norden really does seem to be digging a hole in the earth even when delivering what can’t help sounding today like Beckettian retorts.

Some distracting double-casting in the smaller roles creates a hectic theatrical canvas. Sally Hughes juggles Guildenstern, Voltemand, Reynaldo and Fortinbras. The impossibility of the task made me wonder why Swain hadn’t edited the script more rigorously to accommodate the limitations of the production.

One downside to the director’s time’s-a-wasting approach is that the introspective flame of the play isn’t allowed to burn freely. Hamlet as a character is so riddled with contradictions that his behavior can often seem bewildering. But even at his most frustrating, the ardency of his thinking draws us to him.

De Ocampo’s Hamlet is unfailingly passionate, but the production doesn’t provide sufficient space for his interior life to unfold. We glimpse his revulsion at Claudius and his disappointment at his mother. We see his pain over Ophelia and his unbroken affection for Horatio (an appealing Adam J. Smith). But his Hamlet is in such a hurry that he rarely comes into sharp focus.

The haste only accelerates in the blurry final act. Speed is vital in performing Shakespeare, but reflection can’t be rushed. Balancing these two imperatives is part of the captivating puzzle of performing “Hamlet.”

'Hamlet'

Where: Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway
Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays (check schedule for exceptions)
Tickets: $40
Contact: (818) 506-1983 or www.Antaeus.org
Running time: 3 hours (including one intermission)


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