Angry Prince

College senior Nat Cassidy proves he's good enough for any stage with his turn as Hamlet

Each year about this time, the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre mounts an ambitious production that comes close to putting every other Tucson theater group to shame. The current extravaganza is Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the actor in the title role is a Prince of Denmark worthy of stalking any stage, anywhere. He's a college senior, for crying out loud, and his name is Nat Cassidy.

Over the past 12 months, Cassidy--a sort of better-looking Steve Buscemi--has turned heads in Metamorphoses (as King Midas), Rumors and A Midsummmer Night's Dream. It shouldn't be a surprise that Cassidy comes through with such a wily, funny, angry Hamlet, but for the fact that he's doing it now, rather than 10 years from now.

Brent Gibbs directs this production cleanly, minimizing the fuss and resisting any temptation to pile up a lot of stage business--the better to showcase Zachery Rosenfield's fluid lighting and Clare P. Rowe's stark white sets. Gibbs and Cassidy give us a Hamlet similarly free of mannerisms and roiling complexity, yet one who's no psychological simpleton. This is not your father's Melancholy Dane, a man paralyzed by depression and indecision. Cassidy's Hamlet feeds off his own anger; he's a calculating, would-be angel of death, gathering evidence and biding his time. Cassidy's Hamlet is more a man of action than most versions of the Hamlet character, and it comes as a jolt to be reminded that the plot unfolds over the course of several months.

In Cassidy's first scene as Hamlet, his disgust and bitterness are quiet but palpable as he fumes over his mother's marriage to her brother-in-law, Claudius, who has become king of Denmark upon the sudden death of Hamlet's father. When the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to reveal that he was murdered by Claudius and to demand vengeance through his son, Cassidy's Hamlet folds up his anger and tucks it into a small place just behind his eyes. In the long course of his vengeance, he feigns madness in a manner that is both childlike and sardonic, allowing that anger to flash only at key moments.

Hamlet brings out the ham in actors, but Cassidy delivers a careful, naturally modulated performance. His "To be or not to be" soliloquy--dangerous, because nearly every theatergoer can recite it by heart and can hear someone like Olivier or Gielgud or Jacobi or Branaugh in their heads--flows with remarkable ease, neither portentous nor trivial. For this play, Cassidy seems to have subtly changed his vocal timbre; it's darker and a little deeper, with a touch of Richard Burton--a wonderful Shakespeare voice.

The other players toil in Cassidy's shadow, but still do well. Lezlee Benninger is a youthful, voluptuous Gertrude (Hamlet's mother), which would have made the play's Oedipal subtext quite interesting had Gibbs chosen to underline it. Dane Corrigan is a properly conflicted Claudius, and David Olsen makes courtier and know-it-all Polonius less a pompous old fool than usual. Christine Woods plays Hamlet's love interest, Ophelia, with a Raggedy Ann look and brittle emotion that make her later mad scenes seem less contrived. Jonathan Brian Furedy and Michael R. Pauley are solid as Hamlet's friend Horatio and nemesis Laertes, respectively.

Gibbs and his dramaturgs have made some judicious cuts, eliminating, for instance, everything having to do with the character Fortinbras. Purists may object, but it brings the running time down to three hours and, more importantly, tightens the action to good effect.

Al Tucci and Sara Gulbrandsen have designed provocative costumes ostensibly inspired by old Bedouin dress. At first, the characters actually look like Huns, Mongols or denizens of Planet Zoloft, but it works to good effect. We realize that Tucci and Gulbrandsen have placed the characters in some royal court of a truly universal past, and this somehow brings them closer to us than if they were draped in the garb of a more specific time and place.

Arizona Repertory Theatre gives us a contradictory Hamlet perfect for contemporary sensibilities: a timeless play about vacillation that moves swiftly and decisively.

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