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STAGE REVIEW

A thinking man's 'Hamlet'

LENOX -- Sharply intelligent, lean, and taut, the first main-stage production of ``Hamlet" in Shakespeare & Company's 29-year history grapples expertly with many of the play's puzzles. Ultimately, though, this is a ``Hamlet" that speaks more to the head than the heart.

Indeed, in director Eleanor Holdridge's clever conception, it speaks within the head of Hamlet himself: Holdridge explains in her program notes that the production is set ``in the electrical synapse impulses of Hamlet's dying brain." It's a stark and steely place, in Edward Check's design -- and a startling one from the first static-filled instant, when the lights go black. With an electric buzz, they snap blindingly back on, then off again, then on, as fragments of famous lines float from the characters, in eclectic modern dress, arranged behind the central figure of Hamlet.

And then we're off, not with Shakespeare's Scene I, the soldiers' sighting of the Ghost on the battlements, but with Claudius's fulsome speech to his new subjects. (Holdridge cuts freely to bring the play in at three hours.) Thrown a bit by the noise and lights, at first we're as disoriented as the Danes by the sudden death of Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, and the even more sudden marriage of King Hamlet's widow and brother. Still, we're amused by the unctuous slink of Nigel Gore's Claudius and the goofy newlywed glow of Tina Packer as his ill-gotten queen.

Hamlet, of course, is not amused at all. He's enraged, bewildered, and betrayed -- and, once he meets that Ghost (the magnificent John Windsor-Cunningham), he's sworn to revenge. In Jason Asprey's vigorous and keen-witted portrayal, which is especially strong in capturing Hamlet's sardonic humor, we believe all the righteous fury that spurs him to action. What's harder to believe is that this athletic young man will weave such a web of self-questioning that the native hue of resolution will be sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.

Holdridge's concept, ingenious and thought-provoking as it is, puts Asprey in a difficult spot for the soliloquies that should lead us, and him, ever deeper into Hamlet's fatal mire. Because we're ``inside" his brain, we're seeing the interior man of action that Hamlet wants to be; paradoxically, that keeps us from seeing as clearly the hesitant man of thought he seems to the outer world. He declaims to us, the audience inside his head, so passionately that we can't believe he won't just pick up a sword and be done with it.

This fast-moving, highly charged Hamlet works better when he must confront other characters. Best of all is his scene with Gertrude: Packer and Asprey, a real-life mother-and-son pair, range through rage, heartbreak, and love. For her part, Packer provides a rich physicality and emotional fullness that too much of this cerebral production lacks; her Gertrude is a middle-aged woman who, to her astonishment, has fallen giddily in love. This unexpected delight makes Hamlet's vitriol against Claudius burn her all the more.

The third member of the Packer clan, her husband, Dennis Krausnick, offers a delightfully self-satisfied Polonius; it takes a smart man to play a foolish one so well. Elizabeth Raetz's Ophelia sometimes seems too brash and bold, but her scenes with Kevin O'Donnell's wolfish Laertes are full of ease and charm.

For all of them, though, we do not mourn as we should. We admire the ideas -- including the brilliant one of having Gertrude and Claudius act out the play-within-a-play with Windsor-Cunningham's Player King -- and we leave with fresh ideas of our own. But, alas, we do not weep.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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