For the Actors' Shakespeare Project, the lack of a theater to call its own has proved a fruitful difficulty. The troupe not only courts new audiences by working in theaters from Cambridge to Dorchester; it also brings new layers of meaning to the plays by taking pains to fit each production to its site.
In the shadowy grandeur of Dorchester's Strand Theatre, director Rick Lombardo (visiting from his own New Repertory Theatre) has found a memorably apt setting for Shakespeare's most theatrical tragedy. To watch "Hamlet" while sitting on a stage and gazing out at ghostly rows of empty seats, as Lombardo has his audience do here, is to reflect anew on the play's incredibly complex meditations on art and life. If only the performances were so layered.
The play's the thing, indeed. And here we all are, onstage with the actors, as they play to us and, in some way, to the echoing house beyond. So we play too; we can't help seeing the whole experience as a quintessentially theatrical one, in which the players' playing of players playing becomes an endless series of mirrors for their own dramas -- and ours, too.
That's a fine way to start this ambitious company's third season; fine, too, is its admirable commitment to making Shakespeare accessible to a wide range of audiences. What is less fine, unfortunately, is the actual texture of too many of the performances themselves.
For while Lombardo has beautifully shaped his concept of the play, he has let some of the actors run roughshod over the lines. This is a boldly physical "Hamlet"; nothing wrong with that. But it's also a monotonously loud, yelling "Hamlet" -- and, especially at nearly four hours, that's not right at all.
Certainly the young prince is angry. Certainly he rages at heaven. But if he does nothing but rage and roar and run around the stage, we miss the quietly self-loathing wit and piercingly acute perception that make Hamlet's inaction more painful to himself than anyone. Benjamin Evett persuades us of Hamlet's fury, but he needs to find the quiet at the heart of the storm.
Marianna Bassham's Ophelia, too, begins at too high a pitch and goes up from there. It's hard to feel much pity for Ophelia unhinged by grief if she's been operating with several screws loose from the start. And Ken Cheeseman, an outstanding Shakespearean in comic roles (including the First Gravedigger here), seems weirdly leaden as the Ghost and the Player King.
In contrast, Johnny Lee Davenport's Claudius gives a sense of the variety and richness in tone that these one-note interpretations lack. He thunders, but he also whispers, and the contrast makes his bellowing seem all the more ferocious. In his strongest moment, when Claudius bemoans his inability to pray, Davenport achieves a majestic theatricality that underscores the production's interest in dramatic self-presentation without distracting us from the words themselves.
It's a nice touch, too, to put Claudius and his Gertrude (given shrewd toughness and lust by Marya Lowry) in one of the Strand's gilt boxes to watch the players reenact the king's murder onstage. We watch the Player King and Queen and, beyond them, the players of king and queen, as the murder shocks both us and them. For this moment, at least, this "Hamlet" resonates with all the layers of meaning a skilled director and cast can unearth. It's both subtle and strong, and it leaves us wanting more.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.