Elsinore is a stack of wooden blocks and columns painted in shades of gray. A distraught Prince Hamlet carves oaths into the wood of the stage and seals his vow with a smear of his own blood. The ultimate battle between Hamlet and Laertes is much more than a mere fencing match, with each combatant working his way through a whole hardware store of weapons, from broadsword and axe to swinging chain and giant meat hook.
Under the direction of Scott Phillips, Shakespeare's most famous imperial tragedy is packed with invention and humor as the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre stages the final production of its annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival on the outdoor stage of Ives Park. This is an intense, muscular production, with a strong cast as willing to go for an unexpected laugh as they are skilled at wringing tears and breaking hearts.
Hamlet, as played by Benjamin Stowe with a mix of Tom Cruise's fervor and Jim Carrey's mania, is one angry dude--not the moping, sighing, droopy-faced Hamlet of some productions. While all that anger is a bit much at times, spreading explosive theatrical gunpowder over nearly every scene, it does wonders for scenes normally played for pathos; in particular, Stowe's deliverance of the "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" speech is brilliant.
Hamlet's murderous Uncle Claudius is also well-played by a physically imposing Justin Thomson, and Queen Gertrude (the always marvelous Mary Gannon Graham) eases her way from smitten adoration of Claudius to stunned self-loathing to world-weary sadness. Brittany Bexton's Ophelia is girlish and frail, traits that only intensify once she goes bonkers in the second act.
The rest of the cast all play two or three characters apiece, a mostly successful plan that occasionally becomes confusing, as when David Yen jumps from playing Guildenstern to Lucianus to Laertes so fast it takes a moment to figure out who is who. That said, Yen's Laertes is especially heartbreaking when mourning the tragic drowning of his sister.
Not so successful was Phillips' opening-night decision to have the ghost of Hamlet's father played, not by an actor, but by a heavily reverberating voice blaring from a series of speakers. The Rep assures that the problems have since been fixed, but there are few things less dramatically compelling than watching an actor kneeling and gawking into space as a largely unintelligible voice makes a long speech from a camouflaged speaker. Quibbles aside, this is a highly effective production, taking a familiar show into new and entertainingly fresh directions.
Hamlet continues Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 27 at 7pm. The park opens at 5:30pm for picnicking. Ives Park, Willow Street and Jewell Avenue, Sebastopol. $15-$20; Thursday, pay what you can. 707.823.0177.