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John Douglas Thompson scores with subtlety in ACT’s ‘Hamlet’

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John Douglas Thompson and Domenique Lozano are among the notable ensemble in American Conservatory Theater’s “Hamlet.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater)

Recent performance practice seems to demand that every Hamlet go ballistic. No one is happy unless Shakespeare’s tragic hero is constantly chewing the scenery.

None of that for John Douglas Thompson.

Starring in the American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening production of “Hamlet,” Thompson gives a performance that’s admirable for its restraint.

Which is not to say that the actor, last seen as Louis Armstrong in ACT’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” doesn’t seethe as the moody Danish prince; as he strives to right the wrongs done by his Uncle Claudius — the murder of Hamlet’s father, Claudius’ “o’erhasty” marriage to Queen Gertrude — Thompson’s intelligent, articulate performance builds organically from within.

His Hamlet is unmistakably tormented from the play’s opening scene, where the Ghost of his father comes to set him on the path of revenge. He’s also eloquent in the soliloquies, his poetic delivery making every word register. Reaching his boiling point takes time, but when it comes, the production is richer for it.

This “Hamlet,” directed by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff, is a classic, refreshingly gimmick-free production. It’s also a roll call of some of the finest actors in recent ACT history.

Perloff surrounds Thompson with an assured ensemble.

Steven Anthony Jones does an impressive double turn, appearing first as the wretched Ghost and returning as a venal, creepily self-absorbed Claudius. Domenique Lozano’s glam Gertrude seems blissfully unaware that her current husband murdered her previous one. Anthony Fusco is a sturdy, devoted Horatio, and Dan Hiatt, one of the Bay Area’s beloved go-to comedians, is superb in the role of Polonius.

Rivka Borek makes Ophelia’s mad scene a riveting episode, and Teagle F. Bougere is a virile, emphatic Laertes. Graham Beckel returns to the company in an insinuating star turn as the Player King and the First Gravedigger. Vincent Randazzo, Teddy Spencer, Peter Fanone, Adrianna Mitchell, and Jomar Tagatac fill multiple roles.

Set designer David Israel Reynoso, who also contributed the sleek costumes, places the action in a blocky palace resembling an abandoned warehouse. Atmospheric lighting by James F. Ingalls, original music by David Coulter and techno sound by Jake Rodriguez suggest an industrial setting.

Perloff’s steadily paced three-hour production never flags, but there are a few scenes — the confrontation in Gertrude’s closet, and the wrenching emotion surrounding Ophelia’s burial — that miss a measure of their requisite impact.

Still, Thompson and the ensemble acquit themselves well. Without histrionics, this “Hamlet” scores a very palpable hit.

Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 15
Tickets: $15 to $105
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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