Arts & Leisure

A lean and modern “Hamlet”

AMANDA ZARR (left) as Hamlet, Marissa Schlichtman as Ophelia in Golden West College’s production of “Hamlet.”

By Thom deMartino/Orange County Tribune

From the once implacable darkness, the creeping melancholy tones of an indigo sky stir — casting down upon the uneasy scene below, unfolding beneath the spectral visage of a shattered crown: as a seemingly unmoored prince weighs the irrevocable cost of vengeance… versus nothingness.

A powerful, modern, minimalist retelling of one of the most popular of William Shakespeare’s works, “Hamlet” at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater in Huntington Beach envisions the existentially conflicted Danish prince in a present-day setting, sporting a post-Grunge aesthetic and delivering an electrifying performance.

The Tom Amen-directed production opens with Hamlet’s uncle — now stepfather and King — Claudius (a wonderfully oily portrayal by Lawrence Hemingway) discussing the state of the kingdom with his wife Gertrude (Carrie Vinikow) while the sullen and brooding Hamlet (Amanda Zarr) stews over his mother’s abrupt marriage to his uncle so soon after his father’s passing… and the suspicious feeling that there is more to his sudden death.

As the queen struggles to keep the peace between her moody son and her former brother-in-law, the prince’s demeanor brightens when he is surprised by the arrival of his old friend and confidante Horatio (Patrick Peterson). Explaining to Hamlet how he had been in the city since the funeral, Horatio lets slip that only the night before he beheld a ghostly visage in the castle — one taking the form of the fallen king. When the bereaved prince insists upon confronting the specter, it is only then that his fears are truly realized, as he learns from the ghost the dark truth of his father’s untimely demise.

Swearing Horatio to secrecy, Hamlet chooses to throw off any suspicion of his own inquiries and schemes by playing mad and acting as if he has lost touch with reality… even if, over the course of the story, the audience would be forgiven in wondering if some of that feigned madness might be more than just an act.

Meanwhile, the senior advisor to the King, Polonius (the ever-mercurial Scott Keister) awaits the return of his son Laertes (Tristan Lund) from abroad, as he plays armchair therapist to the royal couple: theorizing that Hamlet’s wildly unpredictable moods are due to an infatuation with his own beautiful daughter Ophelia (a hauntingly moving Marisa Schlichtman.) But while the young prince may indeed truly adore her, it is that overwhelming inner conflict within him — between his obligation to avenge his father, and staving off that sheer hopelessness, pointlessness and absurdity of life that tinges and darkens the edges of his thoughts — that eclipses all else.

The stage is set: the die is cast; all the pieces are in place. And it is one troubled, driven young man’s choices that will inexorably alter all their fates, forever.

While the original piece is William Shakespeare’s longest play, the Golden West College production has pared it down a svelte two hours; and while audiences of his works can often be challenged, even intimidated by the Elizabethan English, the multi-layered performances of the players make abundantly clear the context, and where each character stands at any given moment.

Hemingway’s Claudius is more than just a two-dimensional villain: while he oozes the insincerity of a disreputable used car salesman, he has moments of self-doubt and remorse that — however briefly — make him seem almost redeemable: and times that he seems almost as concerned as Gertrude about the well-being of her son… almost.

Carrie Vinikow’s queen is not absent as much as trapped by her circumstance and cultural customs of the day… worst of all, despite her desperation, she has no idea how to reach her son — however hard she tries. One could easily compare it to the contemporary struggle of parents trying to find a way to get through to and understand a challenging and complicated child.

It’s a phenomenal work from the entire ensemble: from Peterson’s steadfast and sympathetic Horatio; to Lund’s enraged and single-minded Laertes; to the tender yet protective, paternal Polonius of Keister’s, and his authentic and warm interplay with his devoted (if willful) daughter Ophelia (whose arc is beautifully, heartrendingly portrayed by Schlichtman.)

But it is Amanda Zarr’s Hamlet that sets the world on fire.

Some may wonder if this is a “gender-swapped” version of the tale: it is not. It is that same archetypal story of vengeance, betrayal and tragedy, embodied by some of the finest  local actors in Southern California, regardless of gender: and the sheer gravitas of Zarr’s performance as the tormented prince is equal parts gritty, zany, intoxicating, and sublime. It is a measured, spellbinding portrayal of a troubled young man in impossible circumstances, resolute in his reckless pursuit of justice, and almost oblivious to the collateral damage caused in his wake… and so nihilistic, he may not even care.

A tight and taut interpretation of one of history’s most lauded plays, “Hamlet” at Golden West College is one of its finest productions in recent years, from an already celebrated college theater company. Only three more performances remain of this visionary interpretation, so now is the time to catch this must-see show before it is resigned once more to the darkness.

“Hamlet.” Amanda Zarr, Marisa Schlichtman and Lawrence Hemingway star in this modern-day version of the classic tragedy that is as relevant and timely today as it was nearly 500 years ago. Playing through Sunday, March 13 at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater, 15751 Gothard St, Huntington Beach, CA 92647. Tickets available through the box office at 714-895-8150, x1 or at



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