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June 18, 2010

TT: Hamlet the hipster

I'll be writing about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this week and next in my Wall Street Journal drama column. Today I review two sharply contrasting shows, Hamlet and the West Coast premiere of Lynn Nottage's Ruined, both of which are outstanding. Here's an excerpt.

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The first rule of theater is that there are no rules--other than not to be dull. Practice always trumps theory onstage, and nearly anything, no matter how absurd it may seem, can be made to work if it's charged with conviction. Experience has taught me that lesson time and again, but I can still be taken by surprise when a show about which I'm understandably skeptical ends up being terrific. That happened with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new "Hamlet," which looked trendy on paper but turned out to be immensely exciting.

Hamlet_1_DC_0260.jpgBill Rauch, the festival's artistic director, goes in for up-to-the-second ideas, and his modern-dress staging of "Hamlet" is full of them. The setting is a contemporary castle equipped with swiveling security cameras and beefy guards who brandish assault weapons. Hamlet (Dan Donohue) is a flippant hipster decked out in sunglasses and skinny tie. Claudius (Jeffrey King) is a glib glad-hander who looks like Daddy Warbucks. Polonius (Richard Elmore) is the clueless father of a sitcom-style family. The Player King (Ramiz Monsef) is a rapper and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Vilma Silva and Jeany Park) are a cute lesbian couple.

Are you rolling your eyes yet? Well, stop it. Mr. Rauch's "Hamlet" may sound like a cornucopia of postmodern clich├ęs, but no sooner does it get moving than you find yourself swept up in the momentum of a show that makes compulsive sense. Every scene is shaped with easy authority and every line, even "To be or not to be," is read with a freshness and snap that make it new. It helps--a lot--that the acting is so consistently strong, especially that of Mr. Donohue, who plays Hamlet as a soft-spoken, bristlingly intelligent neurotic who stoops to cheap irony because the situation in which he finds himself would otherwise be too hurtful to bear. But it is the directorial choices that give point to the performances of the cast...

Lynn Nottage and Oregon Shakespeare have close ties. In 2006 the company presented one of the first regional productions of "Intimate Apparel," the Pulitzer-winning play that opened the eyes of many American theatergoers (myself among them) to Ms. Nottage's great gifts. Now it's giving the West Coast premiere of "Ruined," her portrayal of the monstrous war of all against all that has consumed a generation of Congolese women....

Kate Whoriskey, who directed the original production of "Ruined," is remounting it next month at Seattle's Intiman Theatre. While I saw Ms. Whoriskey's version Off Broadway in 2009 and was as impressed as it's possible to be, OSF's production, directed by Liesl Tommy on a three-quarter-round stage, is closely comparable in effect....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted June 18, 2010 12:00 AM

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