An almost-great Dane

Innovative take on Hamlet is nearly undone by its uneven cast

HAMLET by William Shakespeare, directed by Nicole Arends, with Chris Coculuzzi, Shannon Black, Greg Corkum, Michelle Firman, Stephen Flett, Scott Kettles, Barry Lavender, Jorge Molina and Barbara Tomasic. Presented by Upstart Crow at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (79A St. George). Runs to September 2, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. Pwyc (sugg $10). 416-410-2186. Rating: NNN

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a marathon, yes, but Upstart Crow and talented director Nicole Arends make sure there’s lots to look at and think about while we’re watching the feat.In the studio of the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, the audience sits within the circle of action.

With actors stealing behind us, this configuration makes some scenes — like the ghost’s first appearance, in complete darkness — hugely atmospheric, while it also cleverly points up the play’s themes of eavesdropping and indirection.

Arends toys with the text, too, splitting up scenes, making some soliloquies conversations and illustrating bits in the text, so, for instance, we witness Hamlet’s “antic disposition” and don’t just hear about it.

The director’s hand is so firm on this production that it’s difficult to comment on anything else.

The uneven performances range from downright awful (Greg Corkum’s tone-deaf Laertes) through acceptable (Shannon Black’s Ophelia, Stephen Flett’s Claudius) to surprisingly good (Scott Kettles’s ghost and Player King).

Chris Coculuzzi’s always watchable, slyly clever Danish prince grows on you. He speaks his lines casually and unselfconsciously, sprinting around the playing area’s perimeter but also dashing through some of his lines.

His Hamlet seems to have internalized the entire play, which is fitting, since there’s a fascinating suggestion here that the events are all happening in his overactive mind.

Not everything works in this experimental production – surely one of the company’s best.

But Arends and company make us look at this much-produced work in a new way.

The rest won’t be silence for this troupe.

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