A Pitcher, and the Bard 

Impact's Hamlet is pretty good for a play staged in a cramped pizza parlor basement.

Points to Impact for attempting one of Shakespeare's longest and most challenging works in a compact and contemporary form. Artistic director Melissa Hillman keeps swearing she won't do any more Shakespeare, but apparently those Shakespeare Anonymous meetings just aren't working out, because this is the company's fourth tangle with the bard. People like Kenneth Branagh do Hamlet in four hours; Hillman's got it down to two and a half (alas, poor Yorick), and it still makes sense.

But Hamlet is a butt-killer under the best of circumstances, and the basement of LaVal's hardly qualifies as the best of circumstances, what with hard seats, bad sightlines, and the sound of heavy things being dragged to and fro above. And the Impact formula that's emerging -- lots of rushing about, angry music at every turn, an explanatory montage before the first line of text is spoken -- doesn't serve the melancholy Dane as well as it did the other shows. There have been Impact shows with more blood, and maybe even more corpses, but Hamlet is plenty brutal.

The unevenness of the casting works against the show. While some actors are very strong (Christopher Chen as Horatio), their presence highlights the struggles of others. Joshua Huston, who was a wonderful little imp in Nicky Goes Goth, is completely at sea as a swaying Guildenstern, especially next to Rosencrantz (a mirthful Meira Perelstein), who is now apparently Hamlet's ex-girlfriend and by far the more vibrant of the duo. Farah Sanders gets stuck in the dreaded Shakespeare Scansion Trap, delivering her lines as Marcellus with no ear for their rhythm, and far too fast.

Shorn of his Henry 4 locks, David Dyson looks convincingly corporate as Hamlet Senior. His mute distress as he watches his family crumble is one of the subtlest parts of the whole play. When he finally speaks, importuning young Hamlet to get on with the revenging already, he plays it as a SNAG -- Sensitive New Age Ghost. There's a lot of vulnerability and weakness here, which clarifies why Hamlet Junior is having such a hard time getting on the stick; the men of his line seem prone to ambivalence and soul-searching.

As the original MILF, Gertrude is drowning her sorrows in sex and Grey Goose, and why not? Claudius seems to honestly care about Gertrude, even if her conscience is troubled. Hillman almost never takes the stage, which is too bad, because her Gertrude captures well the tension of a woman torn between duty to her spoiled son and her hot new husband.

Cole Smith and Alex Klein showed more range in CentralWorks' Achilles and Patroklos than they do here, although Smith's soft introspection at the beginning of the second act is welcome after the general histrionics of the first, and Klein does noble-and-wronged quite well, although he is very hard to hear unless enraged. There's real tenderness between Laertes and Ophelia (Hannah Knapp, not the most convincing at truly mad); it feels much more familial than either child's interaction with father Polonius (played by John Ferreira as a pompous stuffed shirt we're not entirely sorry to see Hamlet kill).

Patrick Alparone (Hamlet) seethes and maintains his focus admirably, but never seems to have any real uncertainty; he's like an angst-ridden teenager looking for an excuse to get angstier -- which is one way to read the original story, but it would be nice to see a little remorse. When he first talks about his mother marrying Claudius, he seems genuinely concerned about her welfare, which creates the possibility of an exciting character choice: Hamlet actually being protective of his mother. But it doesn't play out. Alparone is a very physical actor with great presence, but he spends a lot of time pressed up against the walls, which gets a little melodramatic.

Which raises the problem of the blocking. While there's a lot of movement, and the stage action certainly never gets static, it sometimes feels like movement for movement's sake. Polonius' circling of the stage as he instructs Laertes has no apparent motivation. In the closet scene, where Hamlet confronts his mother, Gertrude is sitting with her back not only to the whole stage-left audience block, but part of the main audience block as well. Hamlet delivers the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy from a niche that might as well be offstage. Edgy or distracting? This show rides the line.

When things pick up, they're pretty hot. Ophelia's funeral is well staged, as is the confrontation there between Hamlet and pretty much everyone else. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes looks good, and the hand-to-hand at the funeral is pretty intense; fight choreographer Christopher Morrison knows how to make physical conflict work in a small space. These fights are a far cry from some earlier LaVal's shows where the audience had cause to fear for the actors, who too often made their exits bleeding real blood after smacking up against a piece of the set or the post at the downstage left corner of the stage.

That said, this is a more successful Hamlet than you might expect for the basement of a pizza parlor. But that success makes the pizza parlor aspect all the more frustrating. Along with Impact's stated determination to keep its work relevant to the younger crowd, getting locked into the LaVal's space is putting unfortunate constraints on the company. In just a few seasons Impact has proved that it can do strong work that makes complex shows accessible without dumbing down the text; on several occasions (Henry 4, Othello, Scab) it's skirted or made major breakthroughs. Getting tied to a space that demands so much from an audience while allowing so little for the cast and crew doesn't serve Impact's potential. And making every show so fast and loud doesn't allow for the possibility that young audiences can handle more subtle things.

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