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The Politics Are Rotten, but the Acting Is Superb in ACT’s Hamlet

John Douglas Thompson shines as the prince of Denmark.

 

By the end of Act I of the American Conservatory Theater’s new production of Hamlet, running through October 15, you’d have been forgiven for wondering whether the Bard might have taken his own advice, as delivered by Polonius: Brevity is the soul of wit.

Yes, Hamlet is long. Wednesday’s preview, which began at 8 p.m., clocked in at a solid 3 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission), making it a bit of an endurance event; ironically, just next door from the ACT’s Geary Theater at the Curran, Taylor Mac had only just wrapped up the fourth six-hour installment of his 24-hour play. And yet those who toughed it out were well-rewarded. John Douglas Thompson, the acclaimed actor who has played Othello, MacBeth, and Richard III Off-Broadway, is superb as the prince of Denmark, transitioning lithely between playing a loaded coil of energy set out for revenge, and a dejected and morose son crestfallen by his family’s betrayal. Naturally, there’s no shortage of material here to chew on.

While Thompson is Hamlet’s main draw, others in the cast play their part with aplomb: Dan Hiatt as Polonius mines the role for laughs; Steven Anthony Jones as the evil uncle Claudius is able to command the stage even standing beside Thompson, who both metaphorically and physically is a substantial presence. Rivka Borek shines as the love-mad Ophelia, and Anthony Fusco plays the straight man in Horatio.

Another, voiceless, character makes their presence felt here, as well: Scenic and costume designer David Israel Reynoso. His contributions set Hamlet in a place outside of time. The costumes recall World War II-era garb, though it’s hard to even peg it down that closely. (The prince wears a T-shirt for stretches.) Soliders might be green beret commandos; Laertes might be a leather-clad rock star. The ambiguity continues into the set design—a fortress-like warehouse interior, complete with air-horns, a medical-emergency shower, a vinyl freezer curtain, even a mortuary body rack. Reynoso has said he wanted to create a tension between the high-court characters and the morally polluted wasteland they inhabit, and the result is as unsettling as he could have hoped for.

One minor quibble: Thompson, for all his physical dexterity, is in his 50s, which lends him a tremendous gravitas in the role. But he’s perhaps 10 or more years older than his comrades Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and older still than the young Ophelia. Try not to get overly caught up on that, though, because Thompson’s stage presence is enough to make you suspend disbelief for a night.

Of course there’s still the matter of the runtime: I couldn’t help but notice many of my neighbors in the crowd bailed at intermission (approximately 9:30 p.m. on a schoolnight), and some were struggling to make it to the final curtain. Luckily, Act II moves along at a brisker pace, as the action (and body count) piles up. By the bloody end, as the stage is littered with spent bodies, the physical exhaustion feels real and earned—and well worth the cost. And then at long last it’s home, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Hamlet, through Oct. 15, act-sf.org.

 

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