To continue performing Shakespeare or to not? ACT’s ‘Hamlet’ argues the former

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The moment the curtain rises, you can tell the production at the American Conservatory Theater, or ACT, is not “Hamlet” as it was once performed at the Globe Theatre in London. Reimaginings of Shakespeare are vital and, when done right, the highest form of flattery to the Bard. Shakespeare was no stranger to pushing the boundaries of the medium — to continue to do the same keeps his art alive.

The story of “Hamlet” (let’s face it, high school English is a vague memory at best) follows our titular character (John Douglas Thompson) reconciling the death of his father, the fast remarriage of his mother (Domenique Lozano) to his uncle Claudius (his father’s brother, played by Steven Anthony Jones) and, most distressingly, the appearance of what seems to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father (also played by Jones). The ghost claims that he was murdered by Claudius and entreats Hamlet to kill Claudius as revenge. The rest of the play chronicles Hamlet’s torment and hesitancy at completing this deed.

The ACT kicked off its season with a production of “Hamlet” at the ACT’s Geary Theater in downtown San Francisco. The Denmark of this production of “Hamlet” is set sometime in the 20th century. The presence of semi-modern technology is subtly woven into the set. The appearance of the Ghost is accompanied by static feedback on the sound system, and a garage door alternately opens and closes as the set demands. The use of space and lighting effectively transcends the relatively small stage. One notable moment saw the scene directly following Hamlet’s face lit identically to the ghost’s after his first encounter with the specter.

The plot is multi-faceted to say the least (pirates makes a brief appearance), but the central conflict is Hamlet’s descent into paranoia. Are his insane ramblings and behavior meant to throw the characters off and distract from his plot? Can the ghost be trusted? Thompson, as Hamlet, rides this line with nuance. Where Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, for example, is a tortured nobleman, Thompson reimagines the role as a tortured philosopher. He spends much of the play adorned in black slacks and a black sweater, leaving one to half-expect a lecture on Kant at any moment.

One of the scenes that perhaps best demonstrates the tension of Hamlet’s mental state is in the first scene of Act III, the scene featuring the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Hamlet jumps between parrying words with his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, slyly insulting Polonius and darkly ruminating on the merits of suicide. Thompson alternates between lounging on his back in a bathrobe, tearing pages out of a book and standing straight and desperate as he considers the “undiscovered country.”

Although the play is well-acted by its cast, according to the original play, Hamlet is young. He is 30 and home from university — Horatio, his friend, is similarly aged. Both Thompson and Anthony Fusco (Horatio), however, are much older. Fusco looks more like a university professor, rather than a student. Hamlet’s age is important because it contextualizes much of his behavior. His character at times is petulant — he oscillates on his decisions and has difficulty committing. He mouths off to his mother and insults the woman of his affections.

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The physicality of the actors is well done. The visual of Queen Gertrude crossing the stage between Hamlet and Claudius and back again in the first scene is an actualization of how her character is pulled between the two of them to such an extent that she ultimately (spoiler alert) becomes a collateral death to their feud. Ophelia’s descent into grief and madness is so raw, it is almost difficult to watch — she tears at her clothes as mascara streaks her cheeks. Laertes’ reckless defense of his family’s honor is unsurprising considering his jaunty presence, buoyed by a smart leather jacket and black boots. Dan Hiatt, as Polonius, is ridiculously verbose, as he should be, and his bow-tie clad character calls to mind that one professor we’ve all had.

Jones plays Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet, Sr — this is a common casting choice that actualizes the vagueness of who is who in the play. Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, but also his father. Hamlet’s father haunts him, but Claudius’ presence on the throne haunts him as well.

The ACT’s production shows a keen understanding of the essence of “Hamlet.” Although the ages of the cast are not quite accurate, the actors and actresses embody their roles fully.

Hamlet runs at ACT’s Geary Theater through Oct. 15.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].