At this point, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a theatrical peak so frequently attempted that you can see, as on Everest, the frozen bodies of thespians who chanced and failed the perilous ascent on the way. And yet this dissuades absolutely no one to take on the challenge, seemingly again like Everest in the words of mountaineer George Mallory, “Because it’s there.” Thankfully in the new production of Hamlet by the Antaeus Theatre Company the summit is impressively attained, due to Ramón de Ocampo’s brilliant lead performance and Elizabeth Swain’s assured direction.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of perhaps the most famous play in the history of theatre, here goes. Hamlet’s (de Ocampo) dad, the king of Denmark, has been murdered by his brother Claudius (Gregg T. Daniel), who then had the gall not only to claim the title of king for himself, but also the king’s widow, Gertrude (Veralyn Jones), as his new wife. Hamlet, commanded by the ghost of dear old dad to seek VENGEANCE, considers the best way to do this while fending off the positive or manipulative attentions of his love, Ophelia (Jeanne Syquia), her pushy father, Polonius (Peter Van Norden), and his ex-school chums, Rosencrantz (Lloyd Roberson II) and Guildenstern (Sally Hughes).
Then there’s a big pile of bodies. Fortinbras shows up. The end.
De Ocampo’s rendition is perhaps the most chipper ‘Melancholy Dane’ I’ve ever seen, but this is largely due to the boundless energy of his performance, which is successful on all levels. He pulls off the estimable hat trick of making Shakespeare’s language clear and understandable to the audience, delivering the poetry of the prose with panache and bringing a sense of confidence in tackling the epic role; the audience is in excellent hands with this actor.
Van Norden is delightful as the pompous and self-satisfied Polonius, giving as expert and effective a portrayal of this character as I’ve ever seen. He’s superbly funny in the part, but he also makes Polonius three-dimensional, capturing both his delusions of wisdom and importance and the dichotomies of being a doting/controlling father. Daniel (playing Claudius) and Jones (Gertrude) seem somewhat muted in the first half of the play, but Daniel comes to life once Claudius schemes against Hamlet and Jones effectively conveys sorrow and confusion as Gertrude’s life becomes a nightmare. Syquia is subdued in the early going then excels in Ophelia’s mad scene, capturing the tragedy of the story better than any other moment. Finally, Roberson and Hughes are both quite good as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the former all silky manipulation and the latter more blunt in her candor.
Swain’s exceptional direction focuses rightfully on clarity, serving the text of the play and beautifully exploring its complexities of theme and tone. Her pacing is swift but scants no important detail, and her staging keeps things visually dynamic. The opening scene with the Ghost of Denmark Past is rendered quite strongly, aided by Jared A. Sayeg’s moody lighting and Cricket Myers’ detailed sound designs. The idea to place Hamlet’s dead father’s sword center stage, a symbol of the vengeful past ever present to drive the action towards its grim conclusion, is very clever and appropriate, the precise opposite to the woeful directorial overreach occurring in the Wallis’ current production of King Lear.
This Hamlet is well worth seeing for many reasons, but Ramón De Ocampo’s fantastic performance is uppermost on that list – theatre lovers should do themselves a favor and buy a ticket before it sells out.
Hamlet, presented by Antaeus Theatre Company, plays at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center through June 20, 2022. Tickets are available at www.Antaeus.org.