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Great fathersí ghosts
Hamlet on the Common; My Old Lady in Gloucester

Most directors would tell you that Hamletís no day at the beach, but not Steven Maler. The Elsinore of his Hamlet, the tenth annual Commonwealth Shakespeare Company gift of free Shakespeare on Boston Common (through August 7), is fronted by a pool through which Jeffrey Donovanís impetuous Hamlet bounces on a lime-green raft, clad in an old-time bathing suit and water wings. After his swim (and after answering Poloniusís query as to what heís reading with a safety warning printed on the raft), he lies smoothly back, abs working like a yogiís, to bronze himself. Itís a rare moment of relaxation for a Hamlet whoís a rhetorician on Ritalin.

Maler and Donovan have both held they would paint no Melancholy Dane, and they havenít. Whether clad in V-neck and tie or cargo pants and tie-dye, Donovan is a fiery-schoolboy Hamlet, lugging a bookbag and taking notes as if brainstorming term papers on the appeal of suicide or how to bait a better mousetrap. Heís glum in the first scene and almost tearful at the start of his first soliloquy ("O that this too too sullied flesh would melt"). But from his first encounter with his fatherís Ghost, his mind races in counterpart to his foundering resolve. When he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Denmarkís a prison and Rosencrantz replies, "Why, then your ambition makes it one./íTis too narrow for your mind," you can see that for this Hamlet, whose brain seems about to burst its bars, the observation rings true. Itís not until the end that he achieves calm ("The readiness is all") and goes to meet Laertes and his fate.

The agitated journey mapped by director and actor is that of boy to man. In the beginning, loping dwarfish beside and behind Jeremiah Kisselís formidable Ghost, a looming white figure who gestures with wing-like arms and speaks in an amplified growl, Donovanís Dane is all eagerness to please mixed with terror of the father. Then he develops attitude and warp speed (this is a two-hour-and-50-minute Hamlet, including intermission), through which a childlike poignancy sometimes peeps. Donovanís is also an energetic, by no means enervated, Hamlet, physically sensitive not just to Ophelia and Gertrude but to Claudius. From the beginning, heís repelled by his stepfatherís slightest touch. Itís a repulsion that Will Lymanís suave, barking Claudius will internalize as his politicianís cool gives away to self-loathing.

As history has proved, Hamlet, unlike Lillian Hellmanís conscience, can be cut to fit any fashion. I saw the aging Judith Anderson play the part in the 1970s; pudgy British fortysomething Simon Russell Beale was the best Hamlet in recent memory. So the good news is not that Donovan has achieved the definitive Dane but that, unlike Anthony Rapp, a hole at the center of Malerís otherwise apt 2002 Henry V, this muscular film and television performer, trained at NYU, proves to have stage-acting chops. He and Maler present Hamletís trajectory as a series of speeding ruminations punctuated by aggression and dejection. True, they throw in too much flippancy (as in a bit of Charades on "I know a hawk from a handsaw"). But the actor is much more than the smoldering-sexpot poses of the publicity photos.

Possibly because Maler was struck by parallels to the consummation-devoutly-to-be-be-wishy-washy Democrats and corrupt-but-decisive Republicans squabbling aboard our own "disjoint and out-of-frame" ship of state, the production is in modern dress ó Clint Ramosís costumes run the 20th-century gamut from Edwardian formal wear to World War II uniforms to Karen MacDonaldís fashion-plate Gertrudeís 1960s chic and Hamletís preppy punk. Maler doesnít let political agenda get in the way of what is, for the most part, a strong if unsubtle Hamlet ó well spoken, accessible, and exciting, if too water-happy. The pool is put to effective use when Georgia Hatzisís unhinged Ophelia, having crouched in the shallows through Gertrudeís lyrical evocation of her suicide, solemnly strides to the deep end and plunges, only to be fetched out limp and soaking. But there are too many Hamlet characters here washing away like Lady Macbeth.

Donovan is well supported by a team of artists familiar to fans of Shakespeare on the Common. J Hagenbuckleís sound design offers somber chords and bass rumblings for the Ghost that can be felt under your beach chair. Craig Handelís fights are convincing. And Leiko Fuseyaís blood-red-and-silver set provides some surprises ó as when an intersecting pillar and catwalk light up to form a skewed cross under which Claudius makes his unsuccessful, if temporarily life-saving, attempt to pray.

Lyman is an authoritative Claudius, his Frontline sonority surviving the amplification. And MacDonald is a vulnerable if composed Gertrude who brings touching defeat to her account of Opheliaís end (though even in abjection she can put an outfit together). Hatzis is a gorgeous Ophelia, her "watery weeds" suggested in the form-fitting aqua of her initial outfit, and she brings some hauteur to the male-dominated lass ó though it crumbles quickly and, alas, screechily. Jonno Roberts provides a staunch Hamlet mirror in Laertes, and film director Sam Weisman is no garrulous old fool of a Polonius but a crisp if repetitive right-hand adviser who earns his childrenís ó and the courtís ó affection. For once, his death seems part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The ghost of a manipulating father also figures in My Old Lady (at Gloucester Stage Company through August 7). One of artistic director and prolific playwright Israel Horovitzís best efforts, the comedy/drama was first presented at GSC in 1996, has since been revised and performed in venues from Off Broadway to the Comédie-Française, and now comes home. Not that itís as indigenous to the seaside playhouse Horovitz founded 25 years ago as his Gloucester plays are. My Old Lady unfolds in a large, well-located Paris apartment that neíer-do-well middle-aged American Mathias Gold has just inherited, only to arrive at the abode overlooking the Jardins du Luxembourg and find that it comes with the nonagenarian of the title. Mathiasís rejecting father (who left him nothing else) had bought the apartment years earlier as a viager ó a property purchased, according to a quirk of French real estate, well beneath market price but with the caveat of lifetime tenancy for the seller. So thrice-divorced, flat-broke, self-proclaimed loser Mathias has inherited not just a valuable pied à Paris but also 94-year-old Mathilde Giffard and her chic but embittered daughter, Chloé.

This being a Horovitz play, Threeís Company with a French accent it is not. While keeping us amused with sharp repartee and bilingual punning, the writer comments on differing cultural outlooks and reveals how the sins of the father (or its distaff equivalent) can cripple the son and how lovely, love-soaked rationalizations may not last a lifetime. Mathilde turns out to have been one hot tomato who not only knew Henry Miller but dallied with jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. And the Belgian musician was not the end of her romantic conquests. Like others of Horovitzís plays, this is one that might not take place if people carried DNA cards like driverís licenses.

But even though you can see some of its revelations coming, My Old Lady fields three clever, complex characters bristling with painful as well as sentimental memory, and Eric C. Engelís production mines both its now capricious, now corrosive humor and the anguish nursed by its wounded middle-aged children and visited more suddenly on sly old Mathilde, who has clung for years to a worldly fairy tale, clutching her complicity like a nosegay. Harold Dixonís angry Mathias is both hangdog and explosive; Amelia Broome, though confusingly young for Chloé, captures the attractive but brittle French schoolmarmís thaw. But Nancy E. Carroll outdoes herself in the title role, conveying the slowness, the slackening, and the watchfulness of age, even as she maintains the characterís rueful sharpness and the friskiness of a coquette not yet quite ossified.

Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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