Meet Hamlet, man of action

Courtesy PhotoTitle role: LeRoy McClain plays the Bard’s famed flawed character in a bold new way in California Shakespeare Theater’s “Hamlet.”

There’s a new Hamlet striding the stage at the California Shakespeare Theater, and he’s a powerhouse.

In the title role of Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy, actor LeRoy McClain is the vital, eloquent center of Liesl Tommy’s gripping new production.

This “Hamlet,” which closes the company’s 2012 season, dispenses with the Danish prince as a moody man of inaction. McClain’s Hamlet is young, intelligent and ferociously intense, fueling his conflicted emotions — love, loyalty, grief and rage — with tightly coiled physical energy.

He’s in excellent company, particularly in the principal roles. Zainab Jah traces Ophelia’s downward trajectory with touching pathos.

Julie Eccles lends Gertrude a fragile, crystalline edge, and Adrian Roberts makes a forceful double turn as Claudius and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Bay Area stalwart Dan Hiatt, ideally cast as Polonius, also plays a mordantly funny Gravedigger, and Nicholas Pelczar is a fervent Laertes. Danny Scheie does deft work as the Player King and the unctuous courtier Osric, and Nick Gabriel is a sturdy Horatio.

Tommy is a director of keen insight and imagination, and her three-hour, 15-minute production is intriguing before a word is spoken.

As the elegant cast gathers around an empty swimming pool in what looks like a ruined luxury hotel (set and costumes by Clint Ramos, lighting by Peter West), the stage fills with a chilling sense of portent (sound design by Jake Rodriguez adds to the ghostly atmosphere.)

The scene is modern, and Tommy adds some nice touches — pop songs in pivotal moments, a bit of Hollywood glamour with the arrival of the Players. She also cuts text and characters, including Fortinbras, and toys with some of the play’s best-known passages. Why change “We defy augury” to “We defy ill thinking”?

Still, Tommy ensures that her actors connect. Hamlet delivers his most important soliloquies not alone, but to other actors — “To be or not to be” is spoken directly to Ophelia, with considerable passion.

Time and again — in the riveting bedroom scene between Hamlet and Gertrude, for instance — the actors plumb the play’s emotional depths.

The results, particularly in McClain’s vibrant, knife-edge performance, are outstanding. This may not be a definitive “Hamlet,” but as long as his Hamlet is onstage, it’s a thrilling one.

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