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Photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo

A Sure Thing: There's a totally '80s vibe to Ryan Artzberger's John Cusack-esque Hamlet.

Fast Times at Castle Elsinore

SSC's 'Hamlet' is both weirdly retro and daringly ultramodern

By Steve Palopoli

I'll say one thing about Ryan Artzberger as Hamlet: he's going to scare the hell out of people who like their Shakespeare snooty.

Yes, any loyal Shakespeare Santa Cruz patrons who are already wine-and-cheesed off at the fact that this year's program features not a single performer with Royal Shakespeare Company cred are likely to be even less thrilled with a lead performer who looks somewhat like John Cusack, and plays Shakespeare's haunted prince even more like John Cusack.

I, on the other hand, am completely psyched.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Maybe I am a complete philistine. (OK, that part is true.) But Hamlet has never done much for me. I've studied it in school, seen it performed pro-am at least three times over the years, and seen a couple of the film versions--an average amount of exposure, probably. But every time, I feel like I'm slogging through it--blah blah blah, Oedipus complex, blah blah blah, old-timey (and let's face it, pretty lame) political intrigue, blah blah blah, how come Horatio can see the ghost and Gertrude can't? For some reason, actors seem to find the play's melancholy mystique an excuse to pour on the melodrama, which at best means the language comes off even more obtuse than it already is, and at worst means the lead actor pouts his way through his lines--a ridiculous reading, I have always thought, considering that Hamlet is trying to convince people he's crazy, not grumpy. Artzberger wisely trades in all the gloom for guile and a sharp edge that makes you believe for once that this character is cunning, clear-headed and calculated enough to pull off this scheme.

Furthermore, most "modernized" stagings of Hamlet emphasize contemporary design, not phrasing. I get that they're reluctant to fool with the revered meter of the original verse, but c'mon people, throw me a bone here! What's brilliant about Artzberger's performance is how he demonstrates definitively that you don't have to change Shakespeare's words to put his meaning into a 21st-century context. All of the work Artzberger does is in his delivery, especially his tone--a sarcastic, snotty, post-Simpsons reading for a character so sarcastic and snotty he was not too long ago actually portrayed by Bart Simpson.

The updates to the design are less effective--though they're quite efficient, and certainly striking. The sets and costumes are not so much reminiscent of a particular modern era as they are simply "postmodern." A little post-WWII in the soldier uniforms, a little '90s in the Britpop white suits and modern stereo gear.

But I enjoy theorizing that director Risa Brainin meant to suggest that this Hamlet is set in the 1980s. That is, that Artzberger is supposed to be John Cusack (Sure Thing-to-Say Anything era) being Hamlet. That Rhonnie Washington is actually playing Bill Cosby (circa the post-Cosby Show "old professor" persona of his Those of You With or Without Children, You'll Understand and Oh Baby albums) playing Polonius. Now, I admit it's unlikely that Artzberger actually had Cusack on his mind going into this role, and even more unlikely that Washington was thinking of the Coz, but both of their stand-out performances suggest something of those personalities, and of that era. Throw in the cheesy heavy metal (and I don't even mean that in a bad way) soundtrack and imagine that the kids are listening to a Walkman rather than a Discman, and you're practically there.

However much I may love my '80s theory, though, I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is some kind of John Hughes take on Hamlet. It is significantly more sophisticated, and the cynical acetylene edge Brainin has used to burn off the melancholy is, for my money, right there on the page. Hamlet is, after all, about a callous kid who spends the entire play conning everyone around him to advance his own ends at any cost. Dump on it all the Freudian significance and dramatic import you want--it's all a game to Hamlet, and Brainin's production emphasizes that, perhaps above all else.

It'll be interesting to see how Brainin's Hamlet goes down with the SSC crowd, I think audiences who have never fully grasped (or are ready to rediscover) the dark, icy wit of this play will find her production an eye-opener. But then, I love the '80s.

Hamlet, a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production, runs through Aug. 24 at the Festival Glen at UCSC. Tickets are $10-$36; 831.459.2159.

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From the August 13-20, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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