The nine intensely driven Wooster Group actors don't merely enact arguably the most important play in all of literature; they do so in perfect sync with the historic 1964 film of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton, which plays on upstage screens in this production. That's certainly an abundance of intellectual and visual stimuli to offer an audience. It's clever, thought-provoking, and fascinating—but, for only so long.
The film, directed by John Gielgud and Bill Colleran, also stars Hume Cronyn, Alfred Drake, John Cullum, Barnard Hughes, and other great old-time names. We can see them, for the most part, on several screens, in various digitally re-edited versions of the film, some of which delete all or part of the actors. Whether you think the heavily gestural acting in the film is brilliant or whether you think it is mannered will undoubtedly color your opinions of the film and of the work of the modern actors, who with very great skill and painstaking care mimic the film. This, mind you, includes not only having studied and re-created the character work of the film actors but also reproducing the exact timing—helped by unashamed glances at the video to synchronize movement—of their delivery. Added to that are odd stuttering cuts in the film that cause the actors to jerk and stagger and hesitate and repeat the odd hand gesture. When the actors sway unsteadily, it is to represent the shaking camera movement. When they glide backward even though a character is addressing them, it is because their film counterpart has been swept from the frame. So much to watch, so many thoughts about creating and revising art. And yet, where is the crux of Hamlet in all of this?
The onstage version is directed—masterfully, imaginatively, with humor and respect for stagecraft—by Elizabeth LeCompte. Devoutly to be wished from her in the near future is a straightforward rendering of the play, preferably starring this impeccable cast. From his first sudden, unannounced entrance until Hamlet's "rest" is indeed silent, Scott Shepherd's Danish prince is riveting, but it cannot be revelatory within the technical constraints here. Kate Valk plays Gertrude and Ophelia, but her apparent talent is wasted in imitating the film's actors.
Roy Faudree as Polonius, Judson Williams as Horatio, Casey Spooner as Laertes and "Rosencrantz/Guildenstern," and Daniel Pettrow as "Rosencrantz/Guildenstern" impress.
So does the haunting lighting, by Jennifer Tipton and Gabe Maxson.
Presented by CalArts at REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., L.A. Wed.-Sat. 8:30 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jan. 30-Feb. 10. (213) 237-2800. www.redcat.org.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies