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Actors’ skill with speeches gives Halberstam’s ‘Hamlet’ reason to be



When: Through Nov. 11

Where: Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe

Tickets: $35-$70

Info: (847) 242-6000;

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Updated: October 19, 2012 6:06AM

Shortly before catching director Michael Halberstam’s fascinating production of “Hamlet” at Writers’ Theatre, I heard a radio interview with Michael Lewis, whose story “Obama’s Way” is in the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Lewis intriguingly explained that Obama has the personality of a writer — that he is both in the thick of the story, and at the same time standing at a distance from it and observing all the pieces.

In some sense, this is the “thought versus action” dilemma that animates Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and is the source of the palpable inner tension that most bedevils the 30-year-old Danish prince himself.

To be sure, Halberstam’s production is a writer’s dream. The director has gathered together a group of actors for whom language has an almost alchemical quality. And they transform many of Shakespeare’s most familiar speeches into pure gold, consistently transfixing you with the active thought that propels their words.

Setting the standard is the remarkable Scott Parkinson, a small, gaunt, whippet-thin actor of immense intellect, physical force and emotional power who gives the soliloquies highly individualistic, razor-sharp interpretations. (Before heading to New York some years ago, Parkinson left an indelible stamp on his portrayal of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in the Writers’ adaptation of “Crime and Punishment.”)

Larry Yando turns out to be the most chilling “ghost of Hamlet’s father” imaginable (as well as a standout as the Player King and Gravedigger), while Ross Lehman brings an intriguing complexity to Polonius, King Claudius’ ever-babbling but far from stupid counselor.

The crystal clear, expertly nuanced, unforced modernism of the actors’ speech is only one dazzling element in this production in which the genetic resemblances of “family members” is notable.

The color palette for the show is a chilly but extremely elegant Nordic mix of black, gray, a touch of royal sparkle and much fur (applause for David Hyman’s costumes). And its set, the work of the ever original Collette Pollard, takes the form of a brick fortress wall scarred by a gaping hole, and a silvery cobblestone pavement whose circular design creates a subtle instability.

Of course the Danish kingdom IS unstable, despite the cool facade maintained by King Claudius (Michael Canavan), who poisoned his brother, the rightful king, and promptly married Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude (Shannon Cochran), to gain the throne. (Cochran skillfully suggests Gertrude is guilty of adultery, but was not privy to the murder.)

Most worrying is Hamlet’s keen sense that something evil has been perpetrated. And Yando’s eerily compelling visit as the ghost (with his brilliant acting only enhanced by an electronically modified voice and eye-altering contact lenses) makes the need to seek revenge a command.

There is fine supporting work by Kareem Bandealy as Horatio, Hamlet’s only true friend; by Timothy Edward Kane as Laertes, Polonius’ volatile son; and by Julian Parker and Billy Fenderson as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s transparently false friends. Liesel Matthews is simply not up to the task of Ophelia.

Three years ago, Halberstam treated audiences to an astonishingly good production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” Now he has gone to the source, and, in league with Parkinson, given us a memorably etched “Hamlet.”

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