Orange County Theatre Reviews

Written by Daniella Litvak 

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark[1],” but things are looking nice at the fifth annual New Swan Shakespeare Festival.  Located on UC Irvine’s Gateway Commons, the New Swan Theater is a movable two-tiered Elizabethan style stage, and it’s a pretty picture to look at.  Just sitting in the theater itself is its own experience.  Thanks to its amphitheater style each seat in the house offers a unique vantage point–although there may be a few times when you have to crane your neck to see everything occurring onstage, because it is a very busy set with actors popping in and out on both levels.


Photo : Paul Kennedy

The reason for all the hustle and bustle is Hamlet.  Perhaps the most famous and most quoted of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet (title character played by Zak Houston) is about Hamlet and his quest to avenge his father’s –the former King of Denmark – murder.  This is not exactly an easy task because the murderer is Claudius (Adrian Alita) –Hamlet’s uncle now turned Hamlet’s king and stepfather.  Along the way Hamlet has to alienate and antagonize everyone around him, including his friends, his mother (Queen Gertrude played by Steph Philo), and his girlfriend Ophelia (Maribel Martinez).  This sets off a devastating chain of events.     

UCI”s production opts for a more traditional aesthetic but still manages to put its own spin on the material.  Director Beth Lopes brings up the fact that at its heart Hamlet is a ghost story.  The show begins with a Ghost (Martin Kildare) haunting the ramparts of Elsinore Castle–and what an opening it is!  Kildare has a fantastic presence as he stalks around the set.  He doesn’t have to say a word, but we immediately get that he is otherworldly and terrifying.  The use of fog, a torch, and the petrified reactions from Hamlet’s best friend Horatio (Grace Morrison) and Watchmen Bernardo (Thomas Varga) and Francisco (Amy Bolton) enhance an already vivid scene.   Afterwards Lopes continues to incorporate more of the supernatural into the play –giving the Ghost more stage time as well as adding more ghostly characters when the body count grows.

One of the things I like about Shakespeare is how his plays can really demonstrate what an actor brings to a role.  Houston uses anger rather than melancholy to fuel his Hamlet, which makes his performance dynamic, and I also like how it makes Hamlet more of a hypocrite.  Greg Ungar is a great Polonius.  He pulls off being an annoyance to the other characters while being a source of comedy to the audience.  The chemistry among him and the actors playing his kids –Martinez and Nick Manfredi as Laertes –makes you believe they’re family, which becomes more poignant later on.  Kelvin M. Rhodes II and Kelsey Jenison are good as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but they are even better as the Gravediggers.   

Overall, Hamlet at the New Swan Shakespeare Festival was a fun experience.  It is visually beautiful.  The play hits a gamut of emotions, but you still come out of the theater feeling good.   There are a lot of options for seeing Shakespeare in Orange County over the summer, but checking out the New Swan Theaters should be on your list.  The same company will also be performing As You Like It there.  And now, “The rest is silence.”[2]

[1] Hamlet Act 1 Scene 4

[2] Hamlet Act V Scene 2

July 28th – August 28th 2016


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