• “Hamlet” and “R&G Are Dead” at the Lyceum Theater. (L-R) Aaron McGee & Katie Canavan, and James McHale & Andrew Puente (Photos - ACTC).

      “Hamlet” and “R&G Are Dead” at the Lyceum Theater. (L-R) Aaron McGee & Katie Canavan, and James McHale & Andrew Puente (Photos – ACTC).

      Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.

      ~ Shakespeare – The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

      Even from a distance of 400 years, it’s hard not to cheer the Bard’s insight: nailed it! This is still headline material. If you thought life among the rich and powerful was ever neat and tidy, the American Coast Theater Company (ACTC)’s current “Hamlet” and “Hamlet”-inspired slate will change your mind.

      By Melanie Hooks

      Too often our reverence for classics distances us from the strength of their message, the power of their words. We keep them separate from our lives. The ACTC wants you to mash it all up. Comedy with tragedy. Clarity with madness. Life with death.

      Onstage now in repertory at the Lyceum Theater at Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University, Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” couldn’t be more pertinent. This is not dead canon. In fact, both pulse with vibrancy and fairly race through the companion themes of self-determination and moral responsibility.

      James McHale, both the “Hamlet” lead and ACTC’s Associate Producing Director, proposed the idea to pair Stoppard’s comedy about two minor “Hamlet” characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Danish prince’s college buddies, with the tragedy itself and found the company wide open to the possibilities. Actors play the same roles in both productions, and McHale and his fellow cast members confirmed that insights began right away in rehearsals. Long-overlooked jokes in the tragedy began landing; the family connection between Polonius and his children felt tighter and more loving. “The lows are lower if there are higher highs,” McHale says.

      Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (L-R) Brock Joseph, Taylor Stephenson, James McHale, Aaron McGee, and Katie Canavan (Photo - ACTC).

      Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (L-R) Brock Joseph, Taylor Stephenson, James McHale, Aaron McGee, and Katie Canavan (Photo – ACTC).

      Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

      Fellow ACTC Associate Producing Director Christi McHale takes on the Stoppard piece, which began rehearsals first, and its racy rhythm of absurdist banter loosens the heaviness around both plays. So does the casting of Rosencrantz as a woman. Actress Katie Canavan secured the role fair and square, McHale says, as the director had actually been thinking of crossing Guildenstern to female instead. Canavan’s take-charge audition and performance of mask-like stoicism highlights Aaron McGee (Guildenstern)’s more expressive antics as well as his emotional fragility. It’s an effective contrast, just short of characterization, which Stoppard’s play doesn’t quite allow.

      The humor coincides with the leads’ constant bewilderment over who they are without an audience or plot motivation, i.e. every time Hamlet is off-stage. Their one job is to “take care of” Hamlet, first as chaperones, then as stooges for his murderous uncle, tasks they spend more time avoiding than owning. Smart music and sound effects highlight all of this existential dread, culminating in a fun, explosive pirate attack – a welcome action sequence in a wordy play.

      Nimble use of the small space, imaginative use of hanging ropes, and cast standouts Brock Joseph as the Player King and Amanda Zarr as a Tragedian/Ensemble member aid the strong leads. Zarr pops as the onstage sound effect maker for the play within a play. Joseph’s burly physicality underlines his character’s moral certitude in this fluid universe of players, while the actor’s command of Stoppard’s language doubly ensures that we look forward to his appearances as small moments of clarity. The joke is that this ‘preacher’ believes the image is all, reality nothing – even in death.

      Hamlet (Foreground) Andrew Puente (Horatio). (Background) James McHale (Hamlet), Susan K. Berkompas (Gertrude), Paul Eggington (Claudius), Taylor Stephenson (Osric), Katie Canavan (Rosencrantz), Aaron McGee (Guildenstern), Jason Evans (Laertes), Ahmed Brooks (Polonius), Lola Kelly (Ophelia), William Crisp (Ghost) (Photo – ACTC).

      Hamlet (Foreground) Andrew Puente (Horatio). (Background) James McHale (Hamlet), Susan K. Berkompas (Gertrude), Paul Eggington (Claudius), Taylor Stephenson (Osric), Katie Canavan (Rosencrantz), Aaron McGee (Guildenstern), Jason Evans (Laertes), Ahmed Brooks (Polonius), Lola Kelly (Ophelia), William Crisp (Ghost) (Photo – ACTC).

      Hamlet

      Speaking of clarity in the midst of madness…sitting squarely in the other corner of moral certitude – Hamlet. James McHale’s brief appearances in the Stoppard piece tease a giddy madness that comes home to roost in the alternating weekend’s production. Director Jeremy Aluma’s directing resume includes a long tenure as the Los Angeles Four Clowns troupe leader, so fourth-wall breaking, exuberance and buoyant physicality come with the territory. But comedy in Hamlet? Does it work?

      And how.

      As cast member and Producing Artistic Director Susan Berkompas (Gertrude) notes, the audience participation of Shakespeare’s Globe lives on today chiefly in his comedies, but this kind of give and take, wink and nod with audience members is rare in tragedy. Aluma forces this convention to be reconsidered as his actors roam the aisles and share their fears and joys eye-to-eye with those in the seats. All those soliloquies? Now conversations. The watchers ‘off-stage’? Now part of ‘us.’

      Sudden shifts of lighting, though not effective everywhere, do successfully spotlight Polonius’s ramblings (portrayed deftly by Ahmed Brooks) as the often silly, boilerplate ‘wisdom’ of old men everywhere. His children have a ball mimicking his usual wagging fingers, and they express physical and emotional love that can only come of a truly caring home. Lola Kelly (Ophelia) and Jason Evans (Laertes) show us they have a lot to lose, so when Hamlet’s ‘mad antics’ destroy their family, the audience is invested in Laertes’s murderous revenge.

      Much of Aluma’s other staging revolves around death masks, but it is really the physical presence of these fallen characters behind the masks that remind us what has been taken. Life.

      The very life that Hamlet so reveres seeps from McHale’s every pore. Such energy, such delight in seeming insanity, enervates his performance and the entire production. Far from a wishy-washy angster, McHale’s Hamlet decides immediately after witnessing his father’s ghost that he’s in the lunacy game to flush out a murderer, dragging even his mother along with his conviction. His delight is mimicked by several fine comedic performances from Taylor Stephenson (the Gravedigger), Brock Joseph and Amanda Zarr again (here the Player King and Queen), and of course Canavan and McGee as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. If Andrew Puentes’s Horatio comes across as more of an enforcer/bouncer, it’s because he might be the only one who knows, and at times relishes, that far more trouble is afoot than his prince foresees. In fact, the depth of talent on display on both stages testifies to the ACTC’s obvious appeal to southern California’s best performers and designers.

      Hamlet’s tragedy here is that he either cannot or will not acknowledge the certainty of collateral damage in his vengeance plan. His real lunacy lies in his disregard of others’ pain, the cruelty he inflicts on Ophelia for example, despite his comic zeal, and the production in no uncertain terms lays her demise at the prince’s feet.

      The deaths that continue to haunt the stage in both performances remind us of the real human cost, the ripple effects, of just one murder. In the end, our capacity for wit and insight, for human connection which we glimpse again and again here, underlines the tragedies of our own depressive and megalomaniac tunnel visions when let loose. The cost is indeed higher when we see the light we lose.

      “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”
      • Continue to play on alternating weekends.
      • Presented by American Coast Theater Company.
      Lyceum Theater
      2525 Newport Boulevard, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

      • Saturday and Sunday through July 3, 2016.
      • $19.00 General Admission
      $15.00 Seniors age 60+; Children ages 6 to 12; College Students; Groups of 10 or more
      Children under the age of six are not permitted to attend performances and babes in arms are not allowed.
      • Buy tickets here.


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