Timeless classic is well-treated in Compass Rose's 'Hamlet'

For The Baltimore Sun
"Hamlet" continues at Compass Rose Theater at 49 Spa Road, Annapolis, through Nov. 20.

Arguably the greatest play in the English language, William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is enjoying a compatible setting at Compass Rose Theater in its current run.

Within the intimate space in Annapolis, the Bard's words resonate in the minimalist setting rising against the theater's black cinder-block walls.

Founding artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne calls the production "the greatest challenge we have undertaken as a theater company."

She seems well suited to tackle it.

Merry-Browne approaches "Hamlet" with an understanding of its demands in casting, staging, dynamics and insight into motivations — and she fully takes advantage of the vitality of her young cast, whose members vigorously scale the stairs and leap from platforms.

A plot synopsis: Hamlet leaves his studies in Germany to return home to Denmark after the death of his father, the king of Denmark, who has been succeeded by brother, Claudius — who is now married to Gertrude, his brother's widow. Is Hamlet visited by his father's ghost urging retribution for his murder? Or has Hamlet imagined this?

Cast as Hamlet in his Compass Rose debut, Equity actor Phil Gillen fully embraces the character, alternately reflecting love of Ophelia, cruelty, latent distrust of Claudius and depression that dissolves into biting wit.

Hamlet's self-loathing is fully conveyed, as is his remonstrance of his mother's dishonoring his father's memory in wedding his brother. Gillen delivers lines flawlessly, adding unsuspected meaning to the fabled "to be or not to be" soliloquy.

Ali Evarts, as Ophelia, returns for her third show on Compass Rose stage, portraying an intensely animated young innocent firmly committed to Hamlet. She fully conveys Ophelia's shock as she tries to grasp why Hamlet has cruelly rejected her.

As Ophelia's father Polonius, Steve Lebens is brilliant in all aspects, conveying the famously ponderous character with delightful humor while investing substance in his famed "this above all, to thine own self be true" soliloquy.

Lebens also portrays the Ghost of Hamlet's father lending nobility and mystery to the role.

Another Equity actor in a strong Compass Rose debut, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, brings a cool, calculated contemporary dimension to Claudius. Shrewdly manipulating Gertrude, Claudius projects measured concern for Hamlet's welfare, reserving the ultimate reward for a later time of his choosing.

Also delivering a memorable Compass Rose debut is Mary Lauren as Gertrude, savoring her relationship with Claudius while projecting maternal concern toward Hamlet that becomes tortured fear.

Another Compass Rose debuting actor, Joseph Dalfonso, is imposing as Laertes, brother of Ophelia, who becomes the enemy of Hamlet. The tallest cast member, Dalfonso commands attention, heightened in angry scenes where he bellows his fury.

Laertes and Hamlet engage in a phenomenal dueling sequence that is fascinating to watch.

Merry-Browne often delivers a surprise bonus by introducing an exciting new actor.

In this production it's Annapolis native Joseph Leitess making his professional stage debut as Horatio. Possessing formidable stage presence, Leitess commands his every scene, his voice enhancing a fine portrayal of heroic Horatio, devoted protective friend to Hamlet.

Another outstanding support player is Quincy Vicks as the Player King, providing much needed mirth and merriment along with an agile lesson in acting. As Player Queen, Isabel Messina also contributes to Hamlet's design to catch the King.

Adding much needed comedy throughout the production are Rosencrantz played by Colton Needles, recent graduate of Southern Utah University with a degree in theater arts, and Guildenstern, played by Grant Scherini, a recent Broadneck High School graduate who is now a freshman at Anne Arundel Community College.

Also enhancing this stellar Compass Rose production are artistic team members including lighting designer Joyce Liao, costume designer Lizzy Chapman and stage manager Ruth Cowgill.

"Hamlet" continues at Compass Rose Theater at 49 Spa Road, Annapolis, through Nov. 20. For ticket information and showtimes, call the box office at 410-980-6662 or go to compassrosetheater.org.

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