The tricky thing about a play within a play is that it tends to break an audience’s suspension of disbelief, bringing them back to self-consciousness. “Oh yes,” one thinks as actors playing actors take the stage upon a stage, “Here I am, watching a play.” In the production of Hamlet directed by Jessica Kubzansky, currently playing at Ojai’s intimate Theater 150, this meta-voyeurism is further complicated by the fact that the audience is seated down two sides of the tiny black-box theater, effectively forced into roles as courtiers as the bloody tragedy at Elsinore unfolds.
As Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Leo Marks is less the brooding, introverted philosopher and more like a 21st-century tweaker, obsessed with the thought of avenging his father’s murder and operating at fever pitch for most of the three-hour play. Under Kubzansky’s direction, the play’s main characters have the volume turned up: The King’s advisor Polonius (Tim Cummings), commonly portrayed as an officious know-it-all, is in this production a big, intimidating fellow who bellows at his daughter, grabs her by the wrist and shakes her, and then clutches her to his breast like a remorseful wife-beater. Danielle K. Jones as Ophelia and Brendan Bradley as Laertes conjure a sweet filial affection; this Laertes is as fierce in his devotion as he is in his revenge.
Most unusual of all the character interpretations is Claudius (Paul Sulzman), who comes off not particularly villainous at all, but more like a well-intentioned leader who finds himself embroiled in a mess of his own making and seems genuinely sorry about it. In this way, Kubzansky’s production twists the 16th-century tale of full-blooded beastliness into something much more modern and psychologically nuanced. Even the costumes, designed by EB Brooks, are modern suits and jackets sliced, folded, and rearranged to approximate the shapes of period garments, but without any attempt to disguise their origins.
This production marks Theater 150’s premiere as a professional Equity theater company, and what better play to set the stage than this one, in which it is a play that spurs the characters to action, and replaces the pale cast of thought with the native hue of resolution.