Sunday, October 1, 2017

ACT's Carey Perloff stages compelling 'Hamlet'

Polonius (Dan Hiatt, left) tries to discover if Hamlet (John Douglas Thompson) is truly mad. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Carey Perloff is beginning her 25th and final season at the helm of American Conservatory Theater with a compelling production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

It features a brilliant performance by John Douglas Thompson as the title character, a man beset by grief and anger and surrounded by treachery in the court of Denmark.

Hamlet’s grief comes from the recent death of his father, King Hamlet. His anger comes from the subsequently hasty marriage of his mother, Gertrude (Domenique Lozano), to his father’s brother, Claudius (Steven Anthony Jones). In Shakespeare’s time, such a marriage was viewed as incest.

Hamlet assumes that his father died of natural causes until his father’s ghost (also Jones) says that Claudius poisoned him. Hamlet must revenge his father’s death, but before doing so, he pretends that he’s mad.

By the time the play ends, several characters have died, and the stage is littered with bodies in the final act.

The cast features several longtime ACT favorites. In addition to Lozano as Gertrude and Jones as Claudius, they include Anthony Fusco as a low-key Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend; and Dan Hiatt as the loquacious Polonius (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”).

Rivka Borek plays Ophelia, and most of the other actors play several roles. Some of the more noteworthy are Teddy Spencer and Vincent J. Randazzo as the nerdy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively.

Among the others, Teagle F. Bougere is too manic as Laertes.

The set and costumes by David Israel Reynoso set the action in modern times. “This is a place where we’ve done something to destroy the environment in which we live,” Perloff says in a program interview.

Lighting by James F. Ingalls and sound by Jake Rodriguez add to the ominous atmosphere.

One of the pleasures of this production is the richness of Shakespeare’s language. Even though he wrote the play in the late 16th or early 17th century, it resonates clearly to the modern ear. It also contains lines and expressions that Shakespeare coined and that have become familiar in their own right.

Among many others, they include “to thine own self be true,” “the play’s the thing,” “the rest is silence” and “in my mind’s eye.” The program has an informative article about these contributions to the language.

Highlighted by Thompson’s performance in Shakespeare’s longest role, this is a memorable production worthy of ACT’s distinguished 50-year history.

Running more than three hours with one intermission, it will continue through Oct. 15 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through Oct. 15. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit