Hamlet is perhaps the greatest drama in the English language. But in 13 years of reviewing in Sacramento, I’ve yet to see a professional production here.
Foothill Theatre breaks the drought with this lean but intense “chamber” Hamlet, mounted on a shoestring budget, with just six actors working strenuously on a nearly bare stage in Grass Valley.
But don’t let that description mislead you. This Hamlet may be an economy model in some aspects, but there’s plenty of horsepower underneath the hood, and it handles more like a sports car once it hits high gear.
Gary Alan Wright has a well-earned reputation as a comic actor—skillful with a funny, cutting line. Shakespeare put lots of sardonic humor in this part; Wright revels in it. Wright’s ability with goofy physical comedy also is manifest as Hamlet goes “mad.”
But Wright is equally solid as a dramatic actor, adept with Shakespeare’s language, and he’s at just the right point in life for this moody, conflicted role. He also can shift smoothly from giddiness to despair. (Wright begins the “To be or not to be” speech in a fleeting moment of warm intimacy with Ophelia—then pulls out a scary razor.)
The other actors are double/triple-cast, including sad-eyed, tenacious Hugh Dignon (Claudius/Ghost), sad-souled Kelley Weir (Gertrude), muscular Christopher W. Jones (Horatio/Laertes), sensitive Elena Wright (Ophelia) and versatile Eric Wheeler (Polonius, among others). Each has a chance to shine, even while handling multiple rapid onstage costume changes.
Director Scott Gilbert has made cuts, including some famous lines. This Hamlet clocks in at two-and-a-half hours (the uncut script runs around four hours). But while this is a streamlined, “minimalist” presentation, the drama doesn’t feel diminished—just condensed. Actually, this sincere little show runs like a train, with the momentum becoming relentless after intermission. The narrow confines of the Off-Center Stage in Grass Valley put the searing outbursts, philosophical insights, and realistic swordplay literally “in your face.” The grim, devastating finale leaves you stunned, and drained.