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Prince of Sighs

A strong lead actor powers this hit-and-miss production

Michael Leicht cuddles Jenn Mikulski before things get ugly.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 7/29/2009

Hamlet

By William Shakespeare

Through Aug. 9 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre

Michael Leicht is no teenager, but the Baltimore actor transforms Hamlet into such a convincing adolescent that he sheds welcome new light on Shakespeare's best-known play. When the prince of Denmark is called before his mother and uncle, this Hamlet behaves like any sullen teenager forced to appear before any reproving parent. Leicht rolls his eyes toward the ceiling as if he can't believe what idiots these adults are; he then casts his eyes toward the floor and bites his lip as if holding back an angry retort. He'll do anything but give his mom the satisfaction of looking her in the eye.

Like most adolescents, this Hamlet is given to sudden, unpredictable mood swings. One moment, he's consumed by despair, collapsing onto the floor and contemplating suicide. The next moment his old friend Horatio (Robert Scott Hitcho) appears, and Hamlet bounces up, slapping hands and swapping grins. One moment, he's plotting grand schemes of revenge against his uncle. The next he's wondering why he should even bother; life is so pointless. Leicht captures each mood so exactly, so vividly that he makes the Spotlighters Theatre's Hamlet well worth seeing, despite the production's many flaws.

Leicht is tall and muscular, a trim goatee and thin stubble on his nearly bald head. He looks a bit like a goth kid in his black cape, tunic, and leotards. When Hamlet flirts with his girlfriend Ophelia (Jenn Mikulski), Leicht lights up like a lava lamp--his face glows and his body bends into a nervous posture. When he later spurns Ophelia for the sin of being a woman like his adulterous mother, Leicht is more like an attacker, grabbing the teenage girl by the throat and snarling in her face: "Get thee to a nunnery." It's a terrific performance; you can't take your eyes off him.

Hamlet may have an attitude, but he has good reason. His mother Gertrude (Sherrionne Brown) was having an affair with her brother-in-law Claudius (Phil Gallagher) and plotted with him to kill her husband so Claudius could share her bed and throne. So says the spirit of Hamlet's father, but can you really believe a ghost? Hamlet hems and haws; should he just act on his impulse or is he making a fool of himself? He puts off the revenge again and again, as if it were an unwelcome homework assignment. He goes so far as to write a play about his dad's murder and to hire actors to put it on, in hopes of getting a reaction out of his mother and uncle. His anger may be justified, but at first he does too little and then he does too much.

For there's another hot-headed adolescent on the premises, another son angry that his father has been unjustly murdered. Michael Donlan plays Laertes as another temperamental teenager, rolling his eyes behind his father's back when Polonius (Richard Peck) gives another long-winded speech, but flushing his face as red as his beard when he learns of his dad's murder and his sister's suicide. And who is responsible for that murder and suicide, crimes as corrupt as those of Gertrude and Claudius? Another of those rotten adults? No, it's the dashing young prince, the would-be fighter for justice.

Caught between Hamlet and Laertes is Ophelia, played by the tall, thin Mikulski with thin braids of red hair tied around her head like a garland. When her brother sternly warns her not to lose her heart or to open her legs to Hamlet, she nods as if absorbing a lesson from a teacher or preacher. But when Hamlet sidles up to her, encircling her waist and sprinkling her face with kisses, her stiff posture loosens like pasta in boiling water. And when Ophelia finally goes mad from all the mixed messages she receives, Mikulski never seems to be putting on a performance; she seems to inhabit an entirely different realm from those around her.

Respectable turns are also provided by Brown, Gallagher, and Carl Stevens as the Player King. Opening night, though, was marred by forgotten lines and missed lighting cues. Those might well be straightened out for subsequent weekends, but unlikely to change are Peck's monotonous mumbling as Polonius, the low-budget props and costumes, and the curious choices of director Gallagher. Especially head-scratching are his decisions to begin Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy as a pre-recorded tape and to eliminate the crucial entrance by Fortinbras at the end of the play. On the other hand, no seat at Spotlighters is more than 12 feet from the four-sided stage, and to be that close to Leicht as he delivers his memorable take on Hamlet is a treat not to be missed.

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