Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Danish modern


John Douglas Thompson as Hamlet and Rivka Borek as Ophelia share a tender moment in ACT's production of "Hamlet" at the Geary Theater. Photo: Kevin Berne
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"To thine own self be true." "The lady doth protest too much." "The play's the thing." "Therein lies the rub." These are but a few of the lines from "Hamlet" that maintain currency more than 500 years after the play was written. And that doesn't even include, "To be or not to be."

When you have so many of Shakespeare's greatest hits stacked together in one play, that familiarity has tempted many directors to look for new ways to connect with audiences. Spoken with precision, muscularity, and authenticity, Shakespeare's dialogue makes the best case for Shakespeare.

And that is the case at ACT's Geary Theater, where "Hamlet" is opening the season with a stylish but mostly straight-ahead production that tells the tale of the tragic Dane with confidant certitude. The sets and costumes are contemporary, generally with an austerity that keeps the focus on the story being told, as events in the royal Danish household spin out of control thanks to the title character's suspicions and a ghost's testimony.

That Hamlet is played by a black actor, as are several other of the leading characters, suggests that some agenda is being deployed. But what that may be, beyond any easy suggestion of a race-based edge, is not clear. Some good guys and bad guys are black, and some good guys and bad guys are white. It doesn't much matter what color the performers are when the setting is a kind of neverland, and attitudes to the environment flow from the same place.

John Douglas Thompson has made a substantial name for himself in New York playing classic roles, though ACT audiences have seen him as Louis Armstrong in "Satchmo at the Waldorf." He was a little young to be playing a late-in-life Armstrong, but he was excellent in that one-man show, and if he's a few years older than the college-student Hamlet is usually thought to be, he is very good in the role. Scrunching his eyes into a fierce squint whenever the character is vexed, which is often, Thompson brings thoughtfulness, intensity, and clarity to the prince who feigns madness to uncover the circumstances of his father's sudden death.

Clarity appears to be the hallmark of director Carey Perloff's production, as speech, motivation, and circumstances are distinctly illuminated. David Israel Reynoso's set suggests an abandoned meat-packing warehouse, largely an empty space clad in a blocky cement structure, while his costumes are mostly somber suggestions of modern attire, with a few playful exceptions that carry into the production for the occasional lighter moments.

With Thompson at the center, a sturdy cast brings individuality to characters around him, including Steven Anthony Jones as his treacherous uncle Claudius, Domenique Lozano as his befuddled mother Gertrude, and Anthony Fusco as his levelheaded confidante Horatio. Dan Hiatt brings just enough comic stylings to windbag courtier Polonius, while Rivka Borek plays his daughter Ophelia with a brave account of her descent into madness, and Teagle F. Bougere gives her brother Laertes a hint of urban edge. Teddy Spencer and Vincent J. Randazzo, outfitted as if traveling salesmen in a vaudeville sketch, enliven Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a laughable cluelessness.

This "Hamlet" has been trimmed to a still-substantial three hours and 15 minutes, but except for several stretches in the final act, it remains vital – and accessible – till the end.


"Hamlet" will run at the Geary Theater though Oct. 15. Tickets are $15-$105. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to


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