Theatre review: Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

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Photo by Taylor Leach

From left: Rachel Speth (Horatio) and Nick Napoli (Hamlet) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

The Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) has outdone itself with its production of Hamlet, continuing through March 21. This streamlined version of William Shakespeare’s tragedy is well-paced and exciting. Its actors— under the capable direction of Brando Cutts, with help from Ken Knight— infuse their characters with urgency. The result is a particularly captivating and accessible performance, in which Hamlet’s inability to avenge his father’s death is made all too clear— and all too human.

The cozy Helen Borgers Theatre seems to expand with Hamlet, aided by a moody, branch-filled set by Nicole Braucher and dynamic lighting by Cutts. Costumes by Dana Leach are richly jewel-toned and textured. And the actors don’t hesitate to project their voices loudly when necessary to express their characters’ fear, grief, hate or even love, making their feelings palpable.

Their interactions are also very physical. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father— the former king of Denmark— visits his son, the two sit facing, even embracing, making visible Hamlet’s devotion to his father and heavy sense of loss from his death. The ghost tells Hamlet that his uncle Claudius, now married to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, had poisoned him and calls on his son to exact revenge.

But the black-clad young Hamlet hesitates again and again, questioning the right course of action in ways that this pared-down production makes easy to see, such as when he could easily stab Claudius while the latter is praying, but doesn’t for fear that his uncle will go straight to heaven. Meanwhile, Hamlet’s relationships with his mother and girlfriend Ophelia deteriorate as he walks a razor’s edge between feigned madness and deep existential angst.

Nick Napoli is very well-cast as Hamlet, doing complete justice to his conflict-ridden character and emoting every word, including the play’s oft-quoted lines about being and not being, about thinking and philosophy, that consume Hamlet’s thoughts and foil his actions.

The other players are similarly invested. Knight as Ophelia’s father Polonius is believable as a dad who just wants the best for his daughter and spouts all kinds of advice– don’t borrow or lend, be true to yourself, yadda, yadda— to his daughter Laertes (not a son in this production), before she goes off to college.

Laertes’s focused determination to avenge her father after he is accidentally stabbed by Hamlet sharply contrasts with Hamlet’s hesitation— perhaps more so than in other productions— in part due to Erin Snett’s animated portrayal of her forthright, albeit one-dimensional, character.

Yelena Podkolzina and Phillip S. Bartolf add parental weight as Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, fitting targets of Hamlet’s adolescent disdain. And Rachel Speth (in another gender-reversed role, though she portrays a male) is rock-solid as Hamlet’s buddy Horatio, having his back to the bitter end.

Though she sweetly contrasts all the talk of vengeance, and sings like a lark, Natasha Renae Potts as Ophelia is no passive wallflower. She is genuinely befuddled by Hamlet’s apparent delusional state and logically disbelieving of his rejection of her. But even this Ophelia breaks after learning of her dear father’s death at Hamlet’s hand, succumbing to a childlike state of delusion herself.

The two side-characters made famous by a Tom Stoppard play— Rosencrantz and Guildenstern— are here a married couple played by Emma Geleynse and Robert Fawcett.

Like the other gender swaps, this one works surprisingly well, the duo’s interactions with Hamlet making perfect sense with Rosencrantz as a woman.

With such vivid and well-cast characters and engaging pace, this Hamlet is sure to please even as it delves into the soul-questioning torment that makes the play so enduring.

Hamlet continues at the Helen Borgers Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through March 21, with shows Fridays (except March 6) and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Ticket prices are $12.50 and $22.50. For tickets and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org.