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Theater Review - In his mind's eye

Jasson Minadakis revitalizes Hamlet

In his director's notes to Georgia Shakespeare's Hamlet, Jasson Minadakis muses on the durability of the melancholy Dane. The director points out, "Shakespeare made his central character a prince who has his political power usurped by another. I have found myself comparing Hamlet to a number of contemporary political figures in recent years, perhaps most frequently to Colin Powell."

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Hearing the famous name, you can imagine a Hamlet set in Iraq War-era Washington, D.C., with the likes of Dubya, Cheney or Karl Rove doubling for the scheming Claudius and Polonious. Such an approach could probably score easy political points, but thankfully Georgia Shakespeare's Hamlet, playing through July 22, doesn't hinge on any heavy-handed anachronistic concepts. Minadakis takes some structural liberties with the text, but in the name of bringing a fresh perspective on Hamlet as a hero and human being. Particularly in the first act, the production feels like seeing the oft-staged, oft-filmed story through new eyes.

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Minadakis headed the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival before relocating to Atlanta to take over Actor's Express. This Hamlet marks his first local Shakespeare production, and it's a bold, confident version, beginning with introductory scenes so rich and complex, they're worth describing in some detail.

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Hamlet (Daniel May) sits alongside a hole in the stage the exact size of an open grave that remains visible as a memento mori for the entire show. Before the eyes of Horatio (Neal A. Ghant) and the guardsmen, the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father (Chris Kayser) crawls from the grave, in armor and cape — an indelible, ironic figure reminiscent of both a movie monster and Amadeus' shadowy father figure.

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Minadakis cuts between the ghostly manifestation and Hamlet brooding on the events of the second scene, notably the speeches of his murderous uncle Claudius (Brad Sherrill) and his newly remarried mother, Gertrude (Tess Malis Kincaid). We don't see the latter couple's faces but hear their recorded voices, while Hamlet speaks his lines aloud. It's like a cinematic sequence that cuts back and forth in time to someone's inner thoughts. From the outset, Georgia Shakespeare's Hamlet puts us inside the head of one of the most psychologically complex creations in literature.

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Hamlet has a lot on his mind. His father's ghost charges Hamlet to avenge his death, while his young love, Ophelia (Courtney Patterson), jilts him under orders from her father, Polonious (Bruce Evers). Hamlet confides to Horatio about his plan to feign madness, but is he really pretending? May, Minadakis' frequent leading man at Actor's Express, plays Hamlet as if his recent hardships have stripped his natural reserves, leaving him with raw, magnified feelings.

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May's intriguingly emotional performance, in a way, adds a degree of difficulty to an already mountainous role, but frequently renews our understanding of the Danish prince. May recites "To be or not to be?" with urgency, as if his life depends on how he puzzles out the many sides of the question. Some of his most forceful moments come while sarcastically skewering his untrustworthy friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Chris Ensweiler and Brandon J. Dirden), but in his soliloquies, he's even harder on himself.

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Part of the reason why Hamlet resonates with so many different people is that his dilemma encompasses so many conflicts. In addition to the tensions of life vs. death and madness vs. sanity, Hamlet finds himself in opposition to his mother, his friends, his love, his king, and even greater forces, like his nation, his destiny, all man- and womankind, and his own uncertain nature. He's only paranoid because everybody's against him, although May affectingly suggests he finds some peace near the end.

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The Hamlet-centric approach shortchanges other roles. Polonious' "To thine own self be true" speech disappears completely, with Evers turning the role into more of a villain than a windbag. Kincaid's passionate Gertrude also gets pushed to the margins. As Ophelia, Patterson suppresses her own innate vivaciousness until the character seems defeated from virtually her first appearance. Sherrill, however, makes a fascinating Claudius. Younger than usual for the role, he emphasizes Claudius' stature as a pretender to the throne as well as his guilty conscience.

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Though the first half makes Shakespeare seem novel, Act Two, however efficient, feels more like the same old Hamlet. The drama loses some of its momentum — something I've seen in many productions of both this play and Macbeth — with the title character gone for long stretches of time and a lengthy "mad" scene for the leading lady. Kayser's schticky turn as the wisecracking gravedigger doesn't match his grand work as the ghost and the player king from earlier in the evening. Two out of three ain't bad.

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Apart from a funeral march, Minadakis' Hamlet features little of the costumed pageantry often found in big Shakespeare shows, and I didn't miss it. Swinging lamps provide a neat visual element in the duel scene, and the open grave serves as a persistent metaphor, but otherwise, Georgia Shakespeare offers a largely spare rendition of the work. Minadakis doesn't want anything to get between the audience and title role, so the play feels less like a theatrical ceremony than an introduction. Pleased to meet you, Hamlet.