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Nope, There's Nothing Diminutive About the Woman Sharing the Title Role in This 'Hamlet' 

Just so we don't bury the lead, let's point out that in half of the productions of Hamlet, now at the Great Lakes Theater, the title role is being played by a woman. This is only fair, since back in the day (Shakespeare's day that is) all the women's roles were played by teenage boys.

This is a meaty role for an actor of any gender, and Laura Welsh Berg (who alternates performances as Hamlet with Jonathan Dyrud) brings a feisty kind of anger to a role that can often get mired in self-reflection. Of course, the soliloquies are the juiciest parts of this play, and Berg handles them with panache.

As for the rest of the production, director Charles Fee has turned the GLT stage into a courtroom of sorts, with two sections flanking the center occupied by patrons. At this matinee, there was a rather theatrical dust-up when, during his opening remarks, Fee noted that one of the on-stage seating areas was empty, since some school kids were supposed to sit there and they hadn't arrived. When Fee inquired whether anyone else would like those seats, a number of people jumped up out of the audience and bolted for the stage as if someone had announced there were hundred dollar bills there for the taking. It was the most highly motivated theater audience I've seen in years.

Anyhow, the scenic design by Russell Metheny is simple and serviceable, echoing the design of the original Globe Theatre, with the thrust stage reaching out into the audience and bringing them in. And they should be that close, because this ultimate revenge drama has a lot going on. Right from the beginning, Hamlet is bummed because his father, the King of Denmark, has died. Not only that, his mother Gertrude hasn't even let the tears on Hamlet's tunic dry before she weds Claudius, the dead king's brother who is now the king. And Hamlet is suspicious that Claudius did the deed on daddy.

Meanwhile Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, is hot to trot with Hamlet, but she is warned that he is slated for king-ship himself and he must marry someone with royal plasma pulsing through his veins. Then the ghost of the dead king appears and drops a dime on Claudius, saying Claudius poisoned him in his sleep. This causes Hamlet to vow revenge and decide to pretend to be crazy so the king won't see him coming. And then, of course, even more complications ensue.

The cast does well with this classic material, even though some of the blocking prevents them from engaging as directly as they might. Both kings are handled well, with Lynn Robert Berg taking on the ghostly duties and David Anthony Smith smugly taking over the throne and widow Gertrude, who is played with great clarity and some emotional distance by Laura Perrotta.

In the role of Polonius, Dougfred Miller cadges many chuckles from the audience without turning the Lord Chamberlain into a clown. And Christopher Tocco is strong and resolute as Horatio, Hamlet's close friend. However, as clear and precise as much of the production is, it seems some of the blood has been drained from the relationships. The one big exception is Erin Partin, who makes Ophelia come vividly to life, and then to death, in the second act.

Chances are you know that there are a few bodies littering the stage before the carnage is over in Hamlet, what with people dying from poisoned swords, poisoned wine, and a poisoned royal court. Hey, who knew Denmark was such a hotbed of scandal and homicide? But it all looks lovely, with Metheney's faux-candle chandeliers moving up and down to infer different rooms in the castle, and with Kim Krumm Sorenson's lush costumes.

Most importantly, Laura Welsh Berg never makes the trans-casting feel like a gimmick. She wisely doesn't try to purge herself of all feminine mannerisms, yet she exudes a masculine kind of bravado that works well. Not only that, she brings out the conflicts in Hamlet's mind, the torturous introspection that has always made this conflicted man such a fascinating character study.

With the onstage seating and the mini-frenzy that exploded when those seats were suddenly made available, perhaps Fee has stumbled upon a new way to energize theater audiences. Put a few audience seats onstage for all performances, and then have patrons rush up the aisles to fill them on the count of three. It would be theater in the style of a Le Mans race, and I'm already looking forward to it.

Until then, we'll have to get by with this timeless script and a remarkably solid, handsome production by Great Lakes Theater.

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