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Compass Rose Studio Theater’s Hamlet

Shakespeare makes a thrilling return to the Dark Ages

Phil Gillen as Hamlet and Mary Lauren as the Queen. <<photo by Stan Barouh>>

This month Annapolitans celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary with not only his First Folio on display at St. John’s College’s Mitchell Gallery but also a fine production of Hamlet at the Compass Rose Studio Theater.
    Surely you remember Hamlet, that gloomy prince of Denmark on a crusade to avenge his father’s murder, the author of those immortal words to be or not to be? Indeed this play, generally recognized as The Bard’s greatest, contains quotes so common as to have become cliché. Yet it is this existential question for which William Shakespeare is best remembered.
    This play is so well written and acted that even in an intimate staging featuring half the actors of a full-scale production, it loses none of its potency. The best actors don’t just act but react, and if rehearsals prepare them to inhabit a character, the test of that preparation is the manner in which they handle a crisis onstage. Compass Rose actors passed the test during a lighting malfunction that threw this show about life in The Dark Ages into that literal dimension during one unlucky matinee.
    Picture dank Elsinore Castle in winter’s endless night, haunted by the ghost of a king who wanders the watchtower. It’s so dark the cut of his armor is lost to the gloom, leaving only a silhouette reminiscent of Darth Vader. Cut to the interior where courtiers assemble in 10-candle wattage to welcome King Claudius (Galen Murphy-Hoffman) and Queen Gertrude (Mary Lauren), obscured in blackness.
    All wait for him to speak — and for the lights to signal his cue — but there are no lights. So the king waits as if basking in his subjects’ attention until he deigns to address them as if all that time he had merely been pondering the untimely passing of good King Hamlet, his brother. Thus, his words take on the contrived forethought of the tremendous lie that he, the murderer, is living. That is professionalism, as was the theater’s decision to comp playgoers for another performance and reset the lights to a base level sufficient for this show to go on.
    In the following two and a half hours, young Prince Hamlet (Phil Gillen) rues his mother’s remarriage to his uncle and plans his revenge with the help of traveling actors (Quincy Vicks and Isabel Messina). He evades the sycophantic Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (Colton Needles & Grant Scherini), a duo of matching fops sent by King Claudius to ingratiate themselves so they can spy on their old friend. He accidentally slays the king’s eavesdropping counselor, Polonius (Steve Lebens) before killing the old man’s son Laertes in a duel (Joseph Dalfonso) and breaking the heart of his fair daughter Ophelia (Ali Evarts), thus driving her to suicide. And he takes much needed solace in the fellowship of his one true ally, Horatio (Joseph Leitess).
    Like a chess game animated, it’s all chicanery cloaked in chivalry, and the casualties litter the floor.
    The lead actors are phenomenal. Murphy-Hoffman’s Claudius has a commanding presence, while Gillen’s sweet prince displays a range of emotion and machination. Lauren’s queen is an insatiable black widow. Lebens lends an air of levity aside towering Dalfonso. Evarts is pitiable in her fall from demure to deluded. Leitess impresses with the presence of a seasoned trouper in this, his professional debut, alongside two youths: Messina, a seventh grader at Bates Middle School, and Scherini, a Broadneck High grad who slays as the gravedigger singing to wake the dead.
    The set is as somber and barren as a Scandinavian winter.
    The devil of this otherwise splendid production is in details, which feel rushed. Sparse and uncredited sound cues come and go with the subtle nuance of a truncheon. Plastic skulls clatter to the floor and roll with comic effect A silk velvet print catches the eye as historically incorrect amid a sea of spectacular period costumes. Broadswords stand in for foils. Details should not lead to quibbling.
    For all, I highly recommend this PG-13 production of Hamlet-light for devotees and newbies alike.

Director: Lucinda Merry-Browne. Stage manager: Mary Ruth Cowgill. Costumer: Lizzy Chapman. Lights: Joyce Liao. Props: JoAnn and Mike Gidos.

Playing thru Nov. 20, F 8pm, Sa 2 and 8pm, Su 2pm plus Th Nov. 17 7pm, Compass Rose Theater Company, 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis. $38 with discounts; rsvp 410-980-6662;