Hartford Stage's `Hamlet' is paint-by-number Shakespeare

It is a long way from Walton's Mountain to Hamlet's Denmark. And in the Hartford Stage Company production starring Richard Thomas as the indecisive Danish prince, it is a leap of more than geography. It is an artistic chasm unspanned by even Mr. Thomas, an actor who, in addition to his earlier Emmy Award-winning role in TV's ``The Waltons,'' has amassed a recent spate of acclaimed stage performances including the Kennedy Center's ``The Count of Monte Cristo'' and Lincoln Center's ``The Front Page.'' For this production, the first in Hartford's 25th-anniversary season, is so mired in stylistic overkill that even if Thomas appeared as Prince Valiant, one doubts his ability to clear away the directorial underbrush. Despite the actor's top billing, the real stars of this ``Hamlet'' remain director Mark Lamos and favorite-son set designer John Conklin.

For this duo, Hartford's celebratory season means business-as-usual deconstructionism. Mr. Lamos, who also serves as the theater's artistic director, has earned a national reputation as an innovative stager of classics, particularly Shakespearean dramas. Along with Mr. Conklin, a designer of equally iconoclastic renown, Lamos has provided Hartford audiences with consistently eclectic Shakespeare of inconsistent effect. Lamos's direction of the problematic romances, ``The Tempest,'' ``Cymbeline,'' and last season's ``Pericles,'' frequently subverted Shakespeare's poetry to a surfeit of pop culture - miked voice-overs, rock music, and the like.

Now, in ``Hamlet,'' Lamos has unleashed much of the same kitschy torrent, minus the rock music. If the result is not as willfully arbitrary as the earlier productions, it remains a visual approach that furthers plot to the detriment of the poetry; the production may be festooned with a decorative surface, but the play's emotional and psychological depths go unplumbed.

This ``Hamlet'' is paint-by-number Shakespeare. No need to listen to the verse, just fill in the blanks by the visual cues. Laertes is a spoiled college kid, rushing off to university with blow-dried hair, a gold Rolex, and shirt collars perpetually turned up. Claudius, the usurping King of Denmark, is a slippery politician with slicked-back hair and a posterboard smile flashed at every photo opportunity. (One of Lamos's favorite techniques is to turn all political confrontations into modern-dress press conferences, with TV cameramen and popping flash bulbs.)

All is played out in a rotting Denmark that is, at times, very Chekhovian ancien r'egime; gilt-framed portraits no longer hung, gilt-edged chairs askew, chiaroscuro shadows. Later, it is pure ``The Phantom of the Opera''; looming chandelier ominously lowers and becomes lit during the otherworldly scenes involving the reappearance of the ghost of Hamlet's father, who, in his cardigan sweater and Lenin-esque goatee, seems plucked from, say, ``The Cherry Orchard.'' Other times the jackbooted soldiers, blinding searchlights, and screaming sirens are straight out of ``The Great Escape.''

None of these approaches are necessarily incorrect. Certainly argument could be made for any one of them. But collectively they build to no cumulative impact. One is hard pressed to discuss the play's themes of blood revenge and Christian forgiveness relative to this stylistic kaleidoscope; it captures the eye, delineates the plot in the broadest of strokes, but leaves Shakespeare's linguistic and psychological nuances to fend for themselves.

And few of Lamos's actors are up to conveying such subtleties on their own. Robert Gerringer captures the often overlooked humor in Polonius, the King's go-fer counselor. But he sacrifices a certain empathy and nobility. At times his jocular disconnectedness makes it impossible to believe he is father to Laertes and Ophelia. Monique Fowler's Ophelia undergoes an about-face character change that is ``Three Faces of Eve'' melodrama; she cuts a pretty figure as the bare-limbed madwoman. Pamela-Payton Wright as Queen Gertrude manages to imbue her character with some shadow as well as light. In her prim suits and pillbox hats she is a proper matriarch attempting to cover her sins. Nonetheless, her relationship with Richard Poe's Claudius is peculiarly tangential.

And what of Thomas, here playing the lengthiest and most complex of Shakespeare's protagonists? With his earnest youthfulness, moralizing manners, and wire-rim glasses, this Hamlet seems extrapolated from, well, a certain John-Boy Walton reserve. Hamlet's proverbial hemming and hawing doesn't claw at the play's events, but seems appropriately decorous, thoughtful. And Thomas is best in those scenes demanding sensitive introspection. When he questions the guards about his father's ghost, ``His beard was grisl'd, no?'' Thomas's face crumples with a remembered affection that tells us more about his feelings than any plotted revenge.

Shakespeare's verse styles, however, some half-dozen variations in Hamlet's speeches alone, require a fuller spectrum of emotions. Thomas, unaided by Lamos's linguistically laissez faire direction, is less adept here. The worst victims? Hamlet's oft-quoted speeches, which stand out like the hoary chestnuts they have become (out of context). They, like most of the text, remain unillumined. At the Hartford Stage through Nov. 7.

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