Shakespeare al Fresco

Wooden O's brisk Hamlet proves that brevity is the soul of outdoor theater.

Outdoor productions face unique challenges, from thunder and lightning to airplanes and dogs. Ironically, those challenges can be most trying when the weather is on your side. A perfect sunny day brings bigger crowds: more children, more dogs, more noise, and general distraction fueled by pheromones wafting on the scent of suntan lotion and ice-cold bottled beer. A summer-inspired collective attention deficit disorder puts old Shakespeare to the test, calling on actors to draw everyone's thoughts away from sun, skin, and Frisbees.

Wooden O's current production of Hamlet employs some deft tactics to focus the grass-bound audience on the matter at hand. It opens with some bracing swordplay, a few rounds of épée jousting that lets everyone know that, tragedy or not, this adaptation of the Bard's greatest play will be playful above all else. The set design, a double-tiered ramp leading to a single riser, also facilitates movement. The cast is in continual motion, moving up and down and climbing over, through, and behind the scaffolding. And director Mary Machala, a founding member of Book-It Repertory, makes great use of the outdoor setting, allowing her actors to approach the stage from great distances. At one point, Hamlet (George Mount) actually follows his father's beckoning ghost away into the middle distance while the onstage action continues. The Dane's journey describes a great arc, and when he returns, calling out, one gets the sense that some great psychic odyssey has been undertaken.

When it comes to holding folks' attention, however, there's no substitute for good, solid acting, and Wooden O's production features a handful of interesting performances—and in all the right places. Most noteworthy is Mount in the lead. Sporting several tattoos (including a print of Hamlet's father on his forearm) and decked out in a sort of Roger Daltrey–ish collarless mod overcoat, Mount's Hamlet is a sort of manic-depressive slacker intellectual, given to bouts of antic philosophizing followed by slouched, furrow-browed brooding. It's a completely captivating performance, a portrait of tetched, twentysomething fury that should draw the younger crowd without alienating purists. Most striking is Mount's transformation over the course of the play. He actually depicts Hamlet's madness as a trajectory, an emotional and psychological progression from A to B to C. As Hamlet is perhaps the world's most well-known fictional character, so many of us—actors and audiences alike—carry into the theater a full set of assumptions, with the result that the part is often played as a static entity, unvarying and, in a sense, stillborn from the opening scene. Mount's subtle and engaging performance injects the character with a heady sense of mystery and possibility by treating Hamlet's trial as a circumstantial reality, a tightrope walk into the hell of fate and free will.

The rest of the cast more than holds its own. Tracy Repep evinces a feverish vulnerability as Ophelia. Her ethereal good looks and piercing, sky blue eyes lend the role a kind of terrifying lucidity, and her own descent into madness rivals Hamlet's. Aimee Bruneau (recently seen in upstart crow's King John) gives a strong performance as Horatio, and Karen Nelsen and Michael Patten are enigmatically menacing as Gertrude and Claudius. David Goldstein and Gavin Cummins provide a high-spirited comic kick as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Clocking in at just over two hours, this is as quick-paced a Hamlet as you're likely to see, which makes it all the more impressive that Wooden O's production is able to capture the play's substance and emotional punch. Mount's hip, smart performance and the show's jaunty, action-packed style make this something of a rock-and-roll adaptation—Hamlet suitable for a generation raised on the rapid-cut editing of videos and action movies. And yet the production is so well conceived and executed, there's something here for just about everyone. At last weekend's Issaquah performance, four sweet elderly ladies who had watched the show from their folding beach chairs surrounded Mount after the performance, praising his acting chops and asking about his tattoos. Now that's a Hamlet for the ages.

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