'Hamlet' a hit despite what's missing


In celebration of its 10th anniversary, Shakespeare on Wheels has mounted the most famous, most produced play by Shakespeare -- or, for that matter, by any playwright -- "Hamlet."

And, under Sam McCready's direction, this traveling troupe of the University of Maryland Baltimore County has come up with a credible, if much abridged, production.

Although it is almost never performed uncut, the full-length "Hamlet" runs approximately five hours. McCready's version comes closer to two-and-a-quarter hours (including intermission).

The result is a bit like "Hamlet's" Greatest Hits. But, considering that Shakespeare on Wheels performs outdoors at the height of summer, before audiences that include picnickers, children and dogs, shorter is wiser. And McCready's editing and brisk, broad direction keep the story moving.

There is one significant problem. Hamlet's task -- as set forth by his father's ghost -- is to avenge his father's death by killing his murderer and usurper, King Claudius. Murder is against Hamlet's nature, however, and he hesitates for most of the play.

But when the production rips by at warp speed, there's little time for him to catch his breath, much less hesitate.

Not that Jacob Zahniser doesn't do an acceptable job in the role; even his irritating tendency of performing with his long blond hair falling in his face can be written off as the fashion statement of a rebellious youth. More importantly, Zahniser makes it clear that Hamlet is feigning madness -- instead of taking the easy, less interesting way out and portraying him as an out-and-out head case.

Many of the other performances are uneven. Philip Restivo's Claudius is rather flat, as is Richard Kirstel's Polonius -- although in this case flatness can be seen as an indication of the elderly counselor's penchant for droning on. As Polonius' daughter, Ophelia, Tamerin Corn is too reserved in her mad scene, mistakenly making it look as if she, too, is feigning madness.

In contrast, as Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, Jessica Matulevich gives one of the evening's most assured performances. Her Gertrude has maturity and a hint of decency, suggesting that before Claudius led her astray, she had some of the moral fiber Hamlet inherited.

A number of characters are missing from this production, but the most obvious omission is that instead of opening with the scene of Hamlet's father's ghost, director McCready begins with Claudius' ceremonial entrance.

Though this doesn't hamper the plot, it undercuts the theme of appearance vs. reality -- a Shakespearean favorite and one that is especially pertinent here.

When the Ghost does appear -- a few scenes later -- he's portrayed by wisps of smoke and an eerie, broadcast voice accompanied by music that sounds far too science fiction-y. But melodramatic as this may be, it's probably less hokey than seeing an actor as the Ghost since the 7:30 curtain time means this late-night spirit appears during daylight.

Melodrama also shows up in William T. Brown's rusted metal set, dripping with red paint, as well as in the long, black coats with high, turned-up collars that Elena Zlotescu has designed for some of the men.

These and her other, earth-toned costumes effectively eliminate comparisons to the brightly colored "Lion King" -- the new Disney animation based on the "Hamlet" story.

Instead, what you get here feels more like "The Shadow," which is rather fitting for a play that makes no bones about what evil lurks in the hearts of men.


What: "Hamlet"

Where: Coppin State University, 2500 W. North Ave. Shakespeare on Wheels performs at 29 sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington through Oct. 9. (Next Baltimore performance: July 12 at Wyman Park Dell.) Call for full schedule.

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow

Tickets: Free

Call: (410) 455-2917

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