Shakespeare's "Hamlet" comes alive at the Theatricum Botanicum

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Despite the threat of an afternoon scorcher (which never materialized), devoted fans the Bard poured into the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum to see HAMLET, Shakespeare’s most often quoted play. They were rewarded by an amazing performance delivered with finesse and gusto by a talented troupe of seasoned (and young) thespians.

This unique outdoor theatre tucked among the trees in a Topanga Canyon hillside, with its broad, rough-hewn wooden stage and steeply tiered amphitheatre seating, never fails to impress first time visitors. Athletic and strong-voiced players perform not only on the stage and in the fixed set structures, but also in the surrounding woods, along dirt paths, across bridges, and even up and behind the audience.

HAMLET is a classic tragedy, full of anguish, obsession, violence, and death. But there’s also a touch of unexpected humor. Although one character had the audience laughing outright, most of the subdued chuckles and smiles were a response to hearing familiar, modern-day phrases spoken casually in this medieval story. Who knew that 400 years ago, it was old Will who first used, “There’s a method to the madness,” “Something’s rotten in Denmark,” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and “To thine own self be true.”

The play begins with a supernatural visitation that ultimately determines Hamlet’s future. Tortured by his father’s premature death and enraged by his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle Claudius (who is now the king), the young prince’s mind is ripe for obsession. So when his friend Horatio (Stefan Tabencki) tells him that the ghost of the old king has been seen near the castle, Hamlet is frantic to see it himself.

When the shadowy specter (Tim Halligan) appears again, Hamlet follows and forces it to speak. What he hears are the gruesome details of his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle and a terrifying demand for revenge. The rest of the play is the fulfillment of that pledge and the dreadful toll it exacts.

Hamlet’s task is thwarted at every turn, by circumstances (cleverly plotted by Shakespeare), by friends (who often become enemies), by his mother, and by Claudius himself. At each delay he becomes more frenzied, more obsessed with killing his uncle. Those around him are convinced he’s lost his mind. They spy on him. They try to send him away. And finally they plot to kill him.

Suicides, accidental deaths and a final fatal duel between Hamlet and his friend Laertes (Jeff Wiesen) leaves the castle bereft of inhabitants and the stage strewn with bodies. Fittingly, only Hamlet is honored in death (“He would have ruled mightily!”) while Horatio, his one remaining friend is charged with telling his story.

Mike Peebler’s performance as Hamlet is breathtaking. The clarity and precision of his speech, his expressions and gestures, his emersion in the role all make his character accessible to the audience. We are easily convinced that Hamlet’s mad campaign is reasonable, even admirable. Peebler never holds back and never skimps on intensity or passion. Bravo!

Handsome Aaron Hendry is ideal as the arrogant Claudius who sees no wrong in seizing the throne as well as the queen so soon after murdering his brother. Hendry’s smooth portrayal of the usurper almost fools you into feeling sorry him.

Carl Palmer’s portrayal of the long-winded, pontificating and pompous Polonius is hilarious. One almost hates to see him killed so accidentally. Palmer is equally enjoyable later as the Gravedigger who comically misunderstands Hamlet’s questions about a pair of skulls he finds. Hats off to Palmer!

Melora Marshall and Willow Geer play Hamlet’s mother and lover respectively. Both give strong, passionate performances.

Kudos to director Ellen Geer for assembling a solid cast of performers and showing them how to bring HAMLET alive for modern audiences. Casual theater buffs as well as knowledgeable enthusiasts will enjoy this production on many levels.

HAMLET plays Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons or evenings throughout the summer, through October 2nd.Ticket prices are as follows. Adults: $32 (lower tier); $20 (upper tier), Seniors, Students and Equity ($20/$15), Children (5-11) $10. For reservations or information call: (310) 455-3723 or visit: The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Snacks are available at the Hamlet Hut, and picnickers are welcome before and after the performance.

Jackie Houchin is a freelance theater reviewer, covering plays, musicals and readings for the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. She also reviews books for several mystery magazines and writes articles for a local biweekly newspaper.

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.