By Julie Morcate
Ripping off his coat, he spits out a curse and drops to the floor, hard. He slams his fists, shouting how good it would be to not have to live. He gets up and broods, only to fall again (this time on his face) until his friend cheers him up.
Does this sound familiar? In fact, this scene comes from a local production of a play written more than 400 years ago: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Reading it in class may be tough, as it is the longest of the Bard’s plays, but the Philadelphia-based Lantern Theater Co. succeeds in making Hamlet appealing and understandable to today’s audience.
The 15-year-old Lantern won, for the second consecutive year, a prestigious $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in “Shakespeare for a New Generation.” Reaching out to the Greater Philadelphia community, this program makes the 444-year-old Bard accessible for modern-day students who would not otherwise have arts exposure in their schools.
It would be difficult to find the Lantern’s production boring. While Hamlet is a tragedy, it contains much more than death: comedy, insanity, betrayal, sexual allusions, miscommunication, brilliant contemplation and a swordfight.
The moment Hamlet enters, Geoff Sobelle never stops developing his character. If you’re not looking out, you might miss his insolent apple-munching entrance, but you certainly can’t overlook his repulsed squirming at Claudius’ superficial embrace.
In director Charles McMahon’s production, every actor adds body language clues to the mystery of this ambiguous play. Even Guildenstern — often read as a negligible character — is dynamic in this production: Actor Dallas Drummond becomes engulfed in hurt and anger when Hamlet mistreats him.
Sobelle plays an absolutely gripping Hamlet. A terrific physical actor, Sobelle is not afraid of hurting, sweating and swinging from scaffolding. His acting never seems premeditated; as one theatergoer remarked, “He delivered his lines not from his mind, but from his heart.”
The talented actors shed a comical light on serious matters, often with their behavior when it comes to sex. Gertrude and Claudius, played by Philadelphia theater veterans Mary Martello and Joe Guzmán, make lustful beelines for their exits. Ophelia’s one funny moment is her wide-eyed alarm when her brother insinuates that Hamlet wants to sleep with her and charges her to abstain.
Rosencrantz (Dave Johnson) and Guildenstern are instantly hilarious in their ruffled, disorientated entrances.
Polonius (Tim Moyer) has funny tendencies; yet, the way the others react to him — as if he’s the most “tedious old fool” in Denmark — is also sad. Even as he meddles, Polonius is trying to protect his daughter. Discussing state matters while Gertrude and Claudius engage in a relentless make-out session, he softly demands, “What do you think of me?”
Andrew Kane, playing Laertes, accentuates the drama of the play without making it a melodrama. For example, some lines that could be embellished, like Laertes’ “this didst thou,” Kane delivers with a quiet ferocity.
The actor playing Horatio, Dan Hodge, also accomplishes this. He acts as an extension of Hamlet, momentous in his part but never ostentatious.
Unfortunately, Ophelia (Melissa Dunphy) is not as exciting, but this may be the author’s flaw rather than the actress’. Shakespeare makes her a helpless puppet, manipulated by her father and Claudius for interpreting Hamlet’s mental state. Dunphy trembles as she tries to keep up the pretense.
Shakespeare’s plays contain no intermissions, so directors decide on them. In Hamlet, McMahon chose the middle of the scene where Hamlet draws back his dagger to kill the praying Claudius, leaving the audience gasping. This suspenseful moment for Hamlet will seal the fates of Claudius, his mother, his lover, his lover’s father and brother, and his father’s legacy.
Similarly, this whirlwind of a production ends on Hamlet’s dying words, rather than Shakespeare’s original conclusion with Fortinbras. Accordingly, Hamlet truly is the star of this expert production, as it terminates with his final breath.
Hamlet will be performed by the Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater on 10th and Ludlow streets in Philadelphia through May 17. For more information on show dates and ticket prices, go to www.lanterntheater.org.