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Entertainment & Arts

Review: An actor transcends age: John Douglas Thompson melts away the years to play Hamlet at A.C.T.

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Polonius (Dan Hiatt, left) tries to discover whether Hamlet (John Douglas Thompson) is truly mad in A.C.T.'s “Hamlet.”
(Kevin Berne )
Theater Critic

John Douglas Thompson, the British-born actor of Jamaican heritage who trained in America and is now a citizen here, has carved out a reputation as one of our leading classical actors.

His Othello is considered among the finest modern renditions. Combining gravitas with infinite suppleness, he has illuminated other roles in the Shakespeare canon as well as characters in Eugene O’Neill, Christopher Marlowe and August Wilson. (L.A. audiences will remember his towering performance as the haunted traveler searching with his daughter for his vanished wife in Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Mark Taper Forum in 2013.)

One part he’s never until now scaled is Hamlet, the Mt. Everest for actors of his intelligence, technical majesty and ambition. At 53, Thompson might be considered too old to play the Danish prince, a 30-year-old student on leave from university after the suspicious death of his father and the overhasty marriage of his mother.

Director Carey Perloff wisely thought otherwise. She opens her final season as artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater with a production of “Hamlet,” in which Thompson shatteringly portrays the melancholy Dane in a boyishly affectionate performance that heightens the plight of a character forced by treacherous circumstances to relinquish his youthful ideals.

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To judge by appearances, Thompson’s Hamlet is firmly ensconced in his middle years. But the actor brings the ardency and intensity of a much younger man. The innocence of the character is oftentimes intellectualized away. Not here, where the character’s philosophizing is born out of a poet’s broken heart. Hamlet must mature quickly, but maturity has never seemed like such a bad bargain.

The sweetness of Thompson’s Hamlet is as unmistakable as is his sadness. When he tells Ophelia (an emotionally unsteady Rivka Borek) to “get thee to a nunnery,” he’s clearly and mournfully specifying a safe haven, not a brothel. He loves this woman so deeply that when he begins to catch on that she’s a pawn in a spy operation, his fury seems to scald him even more than it does her.

The production, using a freshly abridged version of the play that occasionally seems rushed and blurry, quickly dispatches the “To be or not to be” speech. Thompson turns the moment into a feverish spike of consciousness rather than the culmination of the character’s thinking. The rash fluctuations in mood — suicidal one minute, manically ebullient the next — hint at a protracted adolescence. The references in the original text to “young Hamlet” may have been cut, but the character is still working out how to become an adult.

Most actors show off Hamlet’s topnotch brain in the famous speeches. Thompson reveals the character’s formidable intelligence in the silences that swell up when words seem utterly inadequate. His Hamlet notices more than he lets on. Sometimes he turns away, not wanting to see what he can’t yet accept. When Hamlet observes his old school chums Rosencrantz (Teddy Spencer) and Guildenstern (Vincent J. Randazzo) scheming on the sidelines, the look of disappointment that washes over his face is as expressive as a soliloquy.

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“Hamlet” is the quintessential play about the trauma of growing up. Assimilating to adult reality in the corrupt world of Elsinore is a deadening process. Long before the poison-daubed sword slashes Hamlet in the final scene, the rotten state of Denmark has seeped into his bloodstream with the pernicious stealth of a deadly toxin.

Most actors show off Hamlet’s topnotch brain in the famous speeches. Thompson reveals the character’s formidable intelligence in the silences.

Shakespeare repeatedly reminds us of Hamlet’s noble nature — his emotional, intellectual and moral superiority — so that we feel its loss more acutely. Thompson imbues even the character’s most lunatic moments with an anguished vulnerability. When Hamlet confronts Gertrude (Domenique Lozano) in her bedroom, he recoils from his violent outburst and becomes childlike, a terrified boy entreating his mother to end the nightmare that has engulfed them.

Thompson’s voice, that magnificent instrument, finds the tragedy’s tone of hushed urgency. Unlike Oscar Isaac and Andrew Scott, two superb Hamlets from earlier this year, Thompson doesn’t need to slow down the language to psychologically inhabit it. His experience with the classic repertoire has instilled in him a faith in poetry. He trusts that the words will lead him to the emotion rather than the other way around. The briskness of his delivery is a source of momentum for the production.

I wish that I could report that the rest of the ensemble was up to Thompson’s level. But the supporting cast, which includes a few apprentices from A.C.T.’s MFA acting program, is secondary to the star, astral bodies spinning around a magnificent sun.

The strongest performances — Dan Hiatt’s fusspot Polonius, Lozano’s regally detached Gertrude — combine color with clarity. Perloff’s production reminds us that “Hamlet” was written after Shakespeare had completed a series of successful comedies. Humor, which runs through the play, makes no apologies in a production that can get broad.

Thompson’s older-than-usual Hamlet caused one noticeable casting hiccup. Anthony Fusco’s Horatio, Hamlet’s BFF, has the worn look of a tenured professor. (I kept confusing him with Polonius.) The relationship with Hamlet doesn’t quite make sense — the intellectual kinship is too fatigued. The party days of these ex-frat boys are long behind them.

Age isn’t an issue for the ageless Teagle F. Bougere, who plays Laertes, but he seems to exist in a separate theatrical universe from Thompson’s Hamlet. As Claudius, Steven Anthony Jones accentuates the ceremonial bombast of a ruthless political operator. His portrayal doesn’t so much personalize the figure of Hamlet’s murderous, satyr-like uncle-turned-stepfather as incarnate the spreading rot creeping through the kingdom.

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The castle, where all the nefarious activity takes place, is conjured with haunting simplicity by scenic designer David Israel Reynoso, who also did the modern costumes. James F. Ingalls’ lighting charges the landscape with visual poetry. Jake Rodriguez’s sound and David Coulter’s compositions create a tense acoustical backdrop.

Perloff’s production is beautifully contained, though the blocking of the action is as unsettled as the text. Like so many American productions of “Hamlet,” this one could use another few weeks of rehearsal.

But the storytelling moves at a nice clip, the language is respected and rigorously probed, and at the center of it all is one of the finest actors working in the American theater today.

Thompson sloughs off the years to play this role. His face and body are unchanged, but his spirit is lighter, more buoyant and, crushingly, more tender. His Hamlet makes us feel the tragedy of a society that equates the realization of manhood with death. He is too good for this world yet inescapably part of it. The silence that ultimately overtakes him penetrates the soul.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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