Hamlet Maneuver

Here's one way to tell if a production is good. Say the curtain goes up at 8 p.m. If the first time you check your watch the little hand is near the 9, you're in luck. You've been swept into the acting and the story of the play and everything's clicking along beautifully. But if you squint down impatiently at the Timex and it's 8:06, you're in for a bloody long night.

Happy to report that time flies in Dallas Theater Center's season opener, Hamlet. The performance spans nearly three hours but is so splendidly acted, directed and designed, it zips by like a good two-hour movie. The third Hamlet to go up on a Dallas stage in the past few months, it's the one worth waiting for. Director Richard Hamburger and his cast--particularly New York import Jason Butler Harner in the title role--illuminate Shakespeare's well-worn words in astonishing ways. This production delivers a memorable night of classical theater.

Then there's the new Classical Acting Company and its debut effort, Much Ado About Nothing, now onstage at the Trinity River Arts Center. Dressed up in ginghams and chaps for an Old West theme, there is much too much ado in this production. Their three-hour performance drags on like six...days.

Much Ado begins with an interminable curtain-warmer that sends characters milling about silently and aimlessly on a stage decorated in the mishmash of faux adobe, corrugated tin and cactuses usually found in freeway steak houses. When Act 1 finally gets going, and without much zest at that, everything stomps to a halt for an out-of-nowhere square-dance sequence that involves hauling hapless members of the audience onstage to do-si-do for no reason whatsoever. Excruciating.

Much Ado is a comedy. But the Classical Acting Company, directed by Chris Pickles, a Brit with UK musicals to his credit, gets so caught up in the blustery anger of star-crossed duo Beatrice and Benedick that it leaves the funny parts in the dust. Even the comic relief, Dogberry (Matthew Tomlanovich), has been directed to slog through his scenes with deliberate ennui.

In this dun-colored production, the leads go to the company's co-artistic directors, Emily and Matthew Gray. Typically, real-life pairs tend to hold something back when cast as onstage (or onscreen) lovers, and that's true here. These two display no discernible romantic chemistry. She plays Beatrice like an old-maid gym teacher. He's a portly Benedick (that's with a "k," although Emily Gray insists on pronouncing it with a "t") with a doughy chin and a tendency to gesture woodenly on every syllable.

On and on it goes, this mediocre Much Ado, with whoopin' and hollerin' on every entrance to remind us that this is, yeeha, somebody's wrongheaded idea of the American West. Hearing actors spout Shakespearean poetry while sporting buckskins results in a ridiculous juxtaposition of styles. Perhaps they simply got a good deal on costume rental.

A couple of good local actors are wasted in supporting roles. Jack Birdwell, a dandy Petruchio in the Shakespeare Fest's Taming of the Shrew this summer, lets his Dixie drawl drop in and out as Don Pedro. Gail Cronauer gets stuck in crusty Aunt Eller mode as Leonata. As Borachio, Sean T. Perez borrows Al Pacino's accent from Scarface. Tristan Vaughan, as Claudio, is the only actor who sings in Much Ado--long, mournful numbers that slow down the already sepulchral pace--and he couldn't carry a tune in a 10-gallon hat. Long before the 11 p.m. curtain call, you wish they'd all drop dead.

That is, of course, what happens at the end of Hamlet. The difference is, at DTC, you're sorry to see them go.

On a majestic two-story set by Klara Zieglerova that makes the Kalita Humphreys stage look as wide and high as an airplane hangar, DTC's Hamlet opens with the action already under way. The ghost of Hamlet's father (Michael Kevin) will appear later. Editing that first scene keeps the focus on the troubled young prince of Denmark (Harner) as he grimaces at the wedding kiss between his mother, Queen Gertrude (Caitlin O'Connell), and his uncle Claudius (Shawn Elliott).

Hamburger shifts Hamlet to 1913, just before World War I, and unlike the Old West Much Ado, the later time period makes perfect sense in the context of this play. Kingdoms in Europe are in flux, and armies are on the march. It is a perilous time, made worse for sensitive Hamlet by the murder of his father and the suspicious, too-sudden marriage of Gertrude and Claudius.

What a performance by Harner, a lanky young actor just this side of movie-star handsome. He speaks the familiar speeches with sharp teeth. He listens. He holds back, then explodes. In scenes with Gertrude and Ophelia (Karron Graves), instead of splaying his emotions, he allows only quick glimpses of Hamlet's instability, making his all-consuming grief more heartbreaking and believable.

Using cinematic fades, close-ups and smash-cuts, director Hamburger gives this Hamlet, seen at a preview, a fresh, contemporary sense of urgency. He also has assembled a sublime professional cast, including several fine local actors in key roles: Regan Adair as Rosencrantz, Jakie Cabe as Guildenstern, Chamblee Ferguson as Osric, William Harper as Marcellus, Chuck Huber as Laertes, Billy Eugene Jones as Horatio and Matthew Stephen Tompkins in several roles, including the evil Fortinbras.

It's hard to get critics to agree on anything, but once a year a forum of theater critics from the Dallas and Fort Worth daily and weekly press, including the Dallas Observer, chooses which actors, directors and designers deserve special recognition for good work. This year's list honors eight directors, seven actors, nine actresses, five ensemble casts, more than a dozen designers and 17 theater companies. (Honorees are listed alphabetically.)

New Plays or Musicals: Black Butterfly in Chloroform (Teatro Dallas); Cinderella (Lyric Stage).

Touring Production: Elaine Stritch at Liberty (Majestic Theatre).

Directors: Andi Allen, Ruthless! (Uptown Players); Phyllis Cicero, Blues for an Alabama Sky (Soul Rep Theatre Company and Stage West); Jim Covault, A Skull in Connemara (Stage West); Scott Eckert, musical direction, Titanic (Lyric); Richard Hamburger, Of Mice and Men (Dallas Theater Center); Rene Moreno, Copenhagen (Theatre Three); Artie Olaisen, Grimm Tales (Dallas Children's Theater); Katherine Owens, Silence (Undermain).

Actors: Robert Brewer, Bat Boy: The Musical (Theatre Three); Kieran Connolly, King Lear (Kitchen Dog Theater); Coy Covington, Ruthless! (Uptown); Justin Flowers, A Skull in Connemara and Lobby Hero (both Stage West); Tom Lenaghen, A Man's Best Friend (Undermain); Keith Price, Noxide Square (Soul Rep); Matthew Stephen Tompkins, Monster (Stage West).

Actresses: Tippi Hunter, The Old Settler (WaterTower Theatre); Andra Laine (formerly Andra Buschmann), Be My Baby (Theatre Quorum); Denise Lee, The Old Settler (WaterTower); Katie MacNichol, The Real Thing (DTC); Dana Schultes, Comic Potential (Theatre Three); Darcie Roberts, Thoroughly Modern Millie (Dallas Summer Musicals); Shelley Tharp-Payton, Happy Days (Kitchen Dog); Midge Verhein, Close Ties (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas).

Ensemble Casts: Cloud Nine (Echo Theatre); Copenhagen (Theatre Three); The Late Henry Moss (Undermain); Of Mice and Men (DTC); Titanic (Lyric).

Designers: John Dyer's original music and Lake Simons' puppetry, Alice in Wonderland (Hip Pocket Theatre); Gwen Ward's costumes, Be My Baby (Theatre Quorum); Randel Wright's set design, A Girl's Guide to Chaos (CTD); Zak Herring's set, Grimm Tales (DCT); design team for The Old Settler (WaterTower); design team for Of Mice and Men (DTC).

Special Awards: To the Trinity River Arts Center for providing performance space to many small companies (Uptown Players, Theatre Britain, Classical Acting Company); and to Junior Players for staging imaginative and diversely cast productions that encourage young artists, including PUP Fest, a playwriting program co-produced with Kitchen Dog Theater.