Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles


Lisa Wolpe and Natsuko Ohama
I sometimes judge High School Shakespeare festivals. My biggest complaint about the performances is often what I've come to call "chair-throwing": when young actors express high emotions by screaming and throwing the props around without any apparent justification. There's nothing in their performances that leads you to believe these characters are so angry, and feel so trapped and powerless by their anger, that they're going to take it out on inanimate objects. And to all of those chair-throwing kids I say, "Go see Lisa Wolpe playing Hamlet."

When her Hamlet first appears, he is, in equal parts, grief and annoyance. He's downright snarky over the fact that his family isn't as torn up about his father's death as he is. (He's wearing a gorgeous black velvet cloak—courtesy of costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg—which you're pretty sure Hamlet had commissioned for his mother's wedding so as to give just the right impression of elegant mourning.) But it all changes when he sees his father's ghost. Hamlet immediately drops to his knees, and his voice gets louder in shock and terror. This Hamlet is very nearly driven mad by the sight of the ghost and his harrowing tale. When Hamlet's friends try to stop him from following, he quickly draws his weapon on them, and there is no doubt that he'd use it if he had to. This, boys and girls, is how to crank your emotions up to 11 when acting Shakespeare—it's completely organic to character and situation, and it motivates everything that will follow.

By the time Hamlet starts feigning madness around Polonius, Wolpe's Hamlet is downright dangerous—toying with the old man the way a cat plays with a mouse that's soon to be dinner, and Polonius doesn't have a clue that he's on the menu. Of course, we all know that Polonius isn't going to survive the play, but, with Hamlet this unhinged, we're not entirely sure Polonius will survive their first encounter.

To be fair, Wolpe's Hamlet is not my favorite of her Shakespeare roles. The performance is almost too hurried, as if Hamlet can't wait to revenge himself on Claudius and everything else is just in the way. But even with those reservations, Wolpe still brings her considerable talents to the role, making it worth seeing. Her command of the language is second to none, and when she gives a line a reading which suggests a different interpretation than the one I've always known, it's so suited to the circumstances that I'm fairly certain I've had it wrong all this time.

There's good work all around in the production. Veralyn Jones as Claudius draws a nice contrast between the King's outward persona of a likeable leader who is always in control, and his secret, inner moments of guilt and regret. Laura Wernette's Gertrude has a mothering streak a mile wide; she's constantly showing maternal approval and affection in her gestures—toward Ophelia, toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even toward her new husband (which raises all sorts of juicy possibilities in this very dysfunctional family). Chastity Dotson's Ophelia is feisty and rebellious, which makes her ultimate end all the more tragic. (Dotson also has a terrific facility with the language; her Ophelia sounds nearly contemporary.) Kimberleigh Aarn makes it clear that Horatio is Hamlet's only genuine friend, and probably the only truly decent person in the whole piece. Ann Colby Stocking hits just the right notes as an almost mystical Player, which she pairs neatly with a humble Gravedigger. And a nice directorial touch, in which Rosencrantz (Katrinka Wolfson) is actually a female character, enlivens the brief appearances of Hamlet's purported childhood friends. (This, too, raises juicy possibilities, as Claudius flirts obviously with Rosencrantz in front of his wife.)

Word has it that L.A. Women's Shakespeare Company is disbanding, and that this production is very likely their last. This is depressing news indeed. The company has been a fixture in the L.A. theatre scene for 20 years. (I'd been looking forward to seeing Wolpe take on Lear in a decade or so.) But in a way, this Hamlet is a fitting final curtain for the company, in that it has something prior productions lacked. Often, a production by L.A. Women's Shakespeare consisted of a stellar performance by Wolpe, surrounded by a bunch of other performers struggling to keep up. But, in Hamlet, the company has achieved a true company production—a Hamlet that doesn't noticeably drop in quality whenever Hamlet is offstage.

Hamlet runs at the Odyssey Theatre in West L.A. through October 27, 2013. For reservations and information, see

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company present Hamlet. Directed by Lisa Wolpe and Natsuko Ohama. Produced by Ron Sossi and Lisa Wolpe; Associate Producers Jennifer Sage Holmes and Lia Kozatch. Scenic Designer Don Llewellyn; Costume Designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Lighting Designer Jeremy Pivnick; Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers; Choreographer and Associate Director Cate Caplin; Fight Choreography Scott Ashby; Assistant Director Jennifer Sage Holmes; Stage Managers Alexx Zachery and Jaime Gray; Graphic Designer Kevin Sprague.

Horatio —Kimberleigh Aarn
Laertes —Cynthia Beckert
Osric, Gravedigger —Linda Bisesti
Barnardo, Ophelia —Chastity Dotson
Marcellus, Guildenstern —Christina Frias
King Claudius —Veralyn Jones
Polonius —Natsuko Ohama
Soldier —Maria Pasquarelli
Francisco, Player, Gravedigger, Sailor —Ann Colby Stocking
Ghost of Old King Hamlet, Priest —Elizabeth Swain
Queen Gertrude —Laura Wernette
Soldier —Malika Williams
Rosencrantz —Katrinka Wolfson
Hamlet —Lisa Wolpe

Photo: Enci Box

- Sharon Perlmutter

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