"Proof," Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, Long Beach, CA
"The Verdi Girls," The Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach, CA

"Hamlet," South Coast Repertory Theatre, Costa Mesa, CA

In South Coast Rep’s Hamlet, directed by Daniel Sullivan, low-key replaces regal, pedestrian replaces monumental and we are treated to something old seeming like something new.

The story’s familiar but Sullivan’s taut direction gives it a new, hip twist that makes it resonate with aplomb and relevance.

Claudius, King of Denmark (Robert Foxworth) has murdered his brother, the prior King, and married his sister-in-law, Gertrude (Linda Gehringer).

Hamlet (Hamish Linklater) first learns of the treachery through nightly rampart visitations by his birth father’s Ghost.

After some major-league equivocation, after some ingenious fits of genius (gauge Claudius’s guilt by his reaction to a play that parallels his brother’s death,) and some maddening fits of madness, Hamlet avenges his father’s death.

The script asks what prompts action, reason or madness; it’s through madness in all its manifestations (nocturnal apparitions, momentary piques of rage, premeditated regicide) that Sullivan refracts the production.

Significantly, though, his is not a lavish reenactment of the classic; he wants us to see that madness comes in all shapes, sizes, and durations; that it’s not just the prerogative of royal families but, if therapy and pharmaceuticals, talk radio and magazine ads are any indication, it’s ubiquitous.

Sullivan gives the show an unkingly tenor but the production’s not ho-hum. Foxworth as Claudius is anything but regal; likewise for Gehringer as Gertrude. Both seem as contemporary as colleagues working the room at a convention.

The show was so normal that all those memorable lines didn’t register with me; I just kept thinking how this story could take place in Buckingham Palace or in some Internet cafe.

You might marvel at the vagaries of existence but you wonder if you can get Hamlet’s funereal garb at Banana Republic.

Linklater is an inspired choice for the brooding, melancholy Dane. Initially dressed in mourning black, he’s got the effortless panache of Justin Long the Apple guy in those television commercials. It serves him well: obviously he mourns his father but once he gets over it, he’ll go back to school and get on with his life; or so we think.

Linklater makes Hamlet’s demeanor low-key, his depression situational; occasioned by a death; he’s not maniacal, he’s not postal, he’s grief-stricken. And that’s what makes his performance such an unmitigated success: Hamlet’s malaise reveals itself layer by layer, his madness accrues.

You sense parallels: a president could avenge some perceived wrong to his father; it could lead to denial of reason, to curious recourses, to action not tempered by law.

Hats off to Ralph Funicello’s set. The backdrop features a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder that shows Mad Meg storming a Fellini-esque hell with fellow peasant-women. It’s a nice metaphor for this production: a mad though measured dash into the abyss.

Performances are 7:30 pm, Tuesday and Sunday, 8:00 pm, Wednesday – Saturday, 2:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday. The play runs until July 1. Tickets are $20-$60. The Theatre is located at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. For more information call (714) 708-555 or visit www.scr.org.
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