By Jim Gilles
Opening this weekend at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale is Antaeus Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, featuring long-time company member Ramón de Ocampo in the titular role. Directed by Shakespearean expert Elizabeth Swain, this version of Hamlet hopes to provide “absolute textual clarity” as presented by “able, classical actors who bring the text to vivid life.”
Elizabeth Swain previously directed Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Antaeus Theatre, which had to close before the pandemic. Elizabeth Swain knows Shakespeare and this interpretation makes clear that Hamlet is not indecisive: “Some productions have suggested that Hamlet can’t make up his mind, others that he is really mad, some that he contemplates suicide, then there was the Oedipal version. We will be doing none of that.”
Following the recent death of his father the King, young Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Ramón de Ocampo), returns home to find his uncle Cladius now occupying the throne and the queen’s bed. Actor and Stage Director, Gregg Daniel performs as Claudius in the Antaeus Theatre production of Hamlet alongside his real-life spouse Veralyn Jones, who plays Queen Gertrude. Ignited by the ghost of his late father and surrounded by spies, Hamlet must choose between moral integrity and vengeance. Other talents attached are Jeanne Syquia as Ophelia, Peter Van Norden as Polonius, Michael Kirby as Laertes, and Adam Smith as Horatio. Sally Hughes, Lloyd Roberson II and Joel Swetow each play multiple roles in the show as well.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which Swain has cut down to two and a half hours, continues to be relevant even for those who do not hold the same religious beliefs as the young prince and his contemporaries. “He’s a young man who is facing great moral dilemmas in a totally corrupt world,” Swain said. “And he has to find his way to the truth. That’s a moral journey that he takes, and people can relate to that.” For the first four acts, Hamlet is very much a Renaissance man with a gift for rhetoric like a clever 20-year-old fresh from the university with a fondness for expostulating like Montaigne about the meaning of life in lengthy soliloquies. But in Act Five, Hamlet seems to have aged to a man of 30, dropped his need for “method in his madness” and exhibiting greater clarity about his place in what is ultimately a revenge tragedy. As Swain points out, the play is filled with levity and rhetorical jousting – thanks to the marvelous performance of Peter Van Norden as both Polonius and the Gravedigger.
Ramón de Ocampo quite literally breaks a sweat in a performance made up of equal parts physical stamina and mental agility. “By [Hamlet] pretending to be mad, he actually produces an enormous amount of comedy,” Swain said. “Also, he has this whole thing with the play and the actors who come in. He tells them how to act. … The play has all of these theatrical elements, which is immensely interesting.” Playing the titular role is Ramón de Ocampo, who was also in Swain’s Measure for Measure and who has worked with her previously. “He is extraordinary,” Swain said. “He’s so constantly inventive. He’s a committed, charismatic actor, which is what you have to have for that role.”
Playing his mother, Gertrude, and stepfather/uncle Claudius are the real-life husband-and-wife team of Veralynn Jones and Gregg T. Daniel. Swain met Jones when Swain came to Los Angeles in 2008 and Jones was looking for a director for Medea. A few years later, she asked Daniel to perform in Master Harold and the Boys, which she was directing in New Jersey. “They are very strong actors,” Swain said. “Gregg also works a lot as a director around LA and other places, but he’s a fabulous actor.” Veralyn Jones’s Gertrude is the epitome of regal composure and hauteur, and it was her streaming tears on her face making the tears show her angst when Hamlet accuses her of betrayal.
As Ophelia, Jeanne Syquia is a young woman with a mind of her own. Her “sung-through” mad scenes prove particularly moving to witness. Syquia gets to double drolly as Osric once Ophelia has met her watery end, drowning in a stream. Gregg T. Daniels doubles as Claudius and The Ghost, the latter role one that William Shakespeare originally performed in his 1601 production. Michael Kirby is both Laertes and Player Queen; Lloyd Roberson II is Rosencrantz, Bernardo, Player 3 & 4, Priest, and Courtier; Joel Swetow is Marcellus, First Player, and Captain; and Peter Van Norden is both Cornelius and Gravedigger, as well as Polonius. All are excellent. Adam J. Smith is particularly compelling as Horatio, Hamlet’s trusted friend, who briefly considers suicide but stayed in a dying Hamlet until the end. Sally Hughes, in a total of four male roles (most notably that of Guildenstern), not only clearly delineates one from the other, it’s a treat to see her gender-bending gifts revealed so entertainingly. (She’s also Voltemand, Reynaldo, and Fortinbras.)
The impressive set-design and lighting were the joint efforts of Stephen Gifford and Jared A. Sayeg. The set was inspired by the 1911-12 production of Hamlet done at the Moscow Art Theatre by Konstantin Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig, a production that revolutionized the staging of Shakespeare’s plays in the 20th century. What one makes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet depends on the production values of a given performance. In terms of setting and costumes, Swain’s production takes place in “an imaginary world” and not delimited by fancy Elizabethan costumery or stagecraft.
Swain’s focus is on the clarity of the language and, in this regard, the play works well as making Shakepeare’s language understandable. Literary critics have long argued about the sources of Shakespeare’s play, referring to the old Icelandic tale of Ambeth (which Peter Eggers just reworked into an action-filled epic entitled The Northman). Often there is a comparison made to an earlier play by Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, which is a simple, Italianate revenge tragedy. More likely, as scholar Harold Bloom contends, Shakespeare actually wrote an earlier version of Hamlet in the late 1580s in which Hamlet was less inclined to ruminating about philosophical themes and perhaps had more in common with his warrior father, the Danish King Hamlet.
In the first four acts of the 1601 Hamlet, Shakespeare gives us a Hamlet who is young (20-ish), university-educated, fond of theatre, and in love with Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius. He becomes a man of action in Act V when he discovers that Claudius had arranged to get rid of him for good by sending him to England to a certain death. Returning to Denmark, after switching the royal execution letters, Hamlet arrives in time to witness the burial of Ophelia after her drowning. This follows the humorous scene with the Gravedigger and the comments about the skull of Yorick, the jester of the late King Hamlet, who young Hamlet considers to be a comedic father-figure. At this point, Hamlet has dropped his pretense of madness and it is Ophelia’s brother Laertes who is most agitated by the death of his father Polonius at the hand of Hamlet and the death of his sister Ophelia. Here the tragic forces seem to proceed to clear the stage of the major characters.
As a play, Hamlet is riddled with contradictions. Critics have long puzzled over Shakespeare’s religious beliefs, as to whether he was a secret Catholic (like his father) or a Protestant in the Church of England. This becomes a central issue with the idea of believing in ghosts. Director Swain mentioned in an interview: “I discovered that the Ghost is cruel to Hamlet, does not mention God or heaven – as an honest ghost should, according to Elizabethan beliefs – and describes his murder in gruesome detail. He has no words of love for Hamlet, reveals that his mother was unfaithful to his father, and tells him to “leave her to heaven/ And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge/ To prick and sting her.” This is not a pretty picture. So who, or what is this ghost? Hamlet’s task is to find out if the Ghost is honest and so blessed by heaven, or “a goblin damned” – in fact the devil, trying to trap another human soul into hell.”
Of course, there is the larger issue of revenge, as Hamlet is ultimately a revenge tragedy. In Elizabethan times, revenge was considered illegal under both civil and church law. However, it was often justified when pursued in the name of honor. Hamlet is not sure if he has any justification for revenge or in believing what the Ghost tells him. So, he feigns madness to bide his time until he has the perfect opportunity to unmask Claudius’ guilt with the arrival of the players at court.
As Elizabeth Swain explains: “Our Hamlet is an intelligent young man on whom ‘the whips and scorns of time’ are inflicting enormous woes, but who takes up the challenge the Ghost sets him and eventually grows in moral stature after a couple of unfortunate slip ups. He is passionate, sometimes dangerously so, but his rational side always returns and sets things back on track. He seeks human authenticity in what has become an utterly corrupt world. His soliloquies help the audience experience his journey with him.”
Performances of Hamlet began on Friday, May 20, continuing on Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m., through June 20 (no matinee on Saturday, May 21; dark Monday, May 23 and Monday, May 30). Tickets to all performances are $40. The Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center is located at 110 East Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205 (between N. Brand Blvd. and Artsakh Ave.). For reservations and information, call 818-506-1983 or go to www.antaeus.org