In the overwrought production of Hamlet at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, Hamlet's mother's bedchamber is completely encircled by sheer red curtains, and her bed is covered in red velvet. When Hamlet slays the old councilor, Polonius, who is hiding behind the curtains, the drapery cascades onto his corpse like an enormous pool of blood, and the murder is accompanied by a shrieking Psycho-like chord.
Subtlety is not a hallmark of Australian director Gale Edwards' production, or of Wallace Acton's portrayal of the title character.
With his hair bleached blond and cropped in a rock singer-like mop top, Acton's Hamlet is bitter and angry from the start. In his first soliloquy, he lies down on the floor in a near swoon as he says, "O that this too too solid flesh would melt." Then he yells the line, "Frailty, thy name is woman."
Acton's anguished Hamlet is neither crazy nor indecisive. He's more like a spoiled rich kid who gets an abrupt wake-up call from his father's ghost. Granted, Acton does show some moderation, particularly in his thoughtful rendition of the famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy (which, for some reason, Edwards has moved to a much later point in the play). For the most part, however, Acton shows us a petulant, unpleasant Prince of Denmark.
Nor is his the only overstated performance. As Claudius, Hamlet's uncle-turned-stepfather, Ted van Griethuysen is an unmitigated schemer whose shaved head and martial bearing make him look like Lex Luthor, a comparison not limited to his appearance.
Excesses are to be expected in Ophelia's mad scene, but even so, it's a bit much to see Nicole Lowrance's deranged Ophelia miming sexual relations with a packet of Hamlet's love letters. (Otherwise, however, the actress delivers a sweet, commendable performance, which includes one of Edwards' most effective touches - the substitution of scraps of the love letters for Ophelia's daisies, violets and columbines).
In general, the women fare better than the men. Despite the lurid decor of her character's boudoir, Sybil Lines brings welcome nuances to her portrayal of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, the finest characterization on stage. Hers is a totally innocent Gertrude. She's genuinely shocked to learn of her second husband's villainy, and after Hamlet's terrifying visit to her bedroom, she's scared to death of both of the men in her life.
Physically, the production has a militaristic/science-fiction look. The main feature of Peter England's dark set is a pile of slate-like slabs, and Murell Horton's eclectic costumes include everything from gray Edwardian-style suits to Fortinbras' white army uniforms, which suggest biohazard suits. The impression is jarring - even in a production that frequently goes over the top.
Overall, it's difficult not to wish that Edwards, and especially Acton, had paid a little more attention to Hamlet's advice to the players: "O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings."
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St., N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays. Through Jan. 6