Winnipeg Free Press (Ca), January 24, 1995

Princely performance

Reeves' Hamlet crowned with power, poetry and humor

by Kevin Prokosh

Every actor who utters "This is I, Hamlet the Dane" is under intense scrutiny to justify the claim.

None more so than Keanu Reeves, the Hollywood moviestar returning to the stage to star in the triumphant Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Hamlet, which opened Thursday to a capacity audience.

Reeves pulled on the dark tights of the troubled Prince of Denmark and pulled off a credible princely performance, crowned with power, poetry and humor.

The role may be worn through with familiarity, but Reeves commands our attention throughout this visually rich, strongly-acted and clear-minded production.

The VIP-laden opening night crowd accorded Reeves and the cast a well-earned standing ovation. But not even the screams of adulation from some of his female fans drew a smile from the still melancholy-looking Reeves.

More likely this sweet prince was exhausted and relieved from passing acting's ultimate test. His was a mercurial, intense and physically heroic Hamlet.

Any Hamlet has to face a house divided, and no doubt Reeves will be taken to task for his un-Shakespearean voice, as well as for not always sustaining the music of the words and their meaning. He did not flatter the "To be or not to be," soliloquy where Hamlet contemplates "self-slaughter," but delivered a stirring "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave" to close out the first act with a flourish.

His portrayal will not share the same breath with that of legendary Hamlets. He is a younger Hamlet than most [Ed. note: not true. Kenneth Branagh did Hamlet at 30, also...and it is supposed to be the actual age of the Great Dane], not necessarily a better one.

His is not the traditional Hamlet, wrapped in pale thought and inky despair. Reeves is a fierce and demanding rebel hell-bent for revenge, awaiting only a proper opportunity. When he says he could drink hot blood, he is convincing.

His antic disposition cloaking his plan for revenge is nicely worked out. His comic scenes are all realized and then some.

The climactic swordfight scene - a cut [ha ha] above the typical offering, thanks to fight director B. H. Barry - reveals an athletic Reeves with plenty of swash and buckle.

Reeves's work in his opening scenes did not bode well, as he portrayed a malcontented Hamlet who returns to Denmark brooding over the death of his father, the king, and his mother's all-too-quick marriage to his uncle Claudius, the new king.

His acting was bloodless and his delivery so breathless as to raise doubts as to whether he would survive this stage ordeal. But as with many actors, Reeves began to find the passion for his prince as soon as he began to move around set designer Brian Perchaluk's cold, damp Elsinore castle.

In such dreary greyness sits King Claudius's opulent and decadent court, pervaded with a sense of its own imminent destruction. The courtiers are all finely dressed in Debra Hanson's eye-popping scarlet and gold costumes [I bought 3 of the design sketches: the Player King, the Player Queen and a courtier!].

The production is more than three hours and 30 minutes long. But director Lewis Baumander avoids Shakespearean tedium by keeping his production moving briskly. It was not the endurance test it could be. Baumander provides capable and invisible direction, which is sovereign for its clarity. He also adds several fine touches, such as a projection that serves as a window on the action. When Hamlet is feigning madness, the moon representing lunacy appears.

Hamlet punctuates the second act by throwing his sword through the stained-glass window depiction of the madonna and child, signifying his break with his mother just before he is to confront her in her closet. Surrounding Reeves was an impressive cast headed by Stephen Russell, who offers a Claudius as a haunted, corrupt usurper. Louisa Martin, Baumander's wife, is a weak, shallow Gertrude, who is terrified by the pressure of events she does not understand.

The resourceful Robert Benson is a deftly amusing old poop of a Polonius, a pumped-up domestic tyrant in need of some deflating. As Ophelia, Liisa Repo-Martell is a casting conundrum. Although a more than competent actor, her childlike Ophelia is mismatched with Reeves's virility.

Andrew Akman happily storms the part of Laertes, a man of finely tortured nobility who, unlike Hamlet, acts immediately without thought of death of his father. Gary Reineke's strong work as the ghost, grave digger and player king is an example of how placing superior actors in small roles raises a production.

The Winnipeg content in the cast did themselves proud. Lora Schroeder was a fine player queen, as was the platoon of small-part men of Elsinore: Gene Pyrz, Wayne Nicklas, Robb Paterson, Derek Aasland, Myles Burdeniuk, Dan Deurbrouck and Neal Rempel.

To see or not to see Hamlet? No question, based on the opening night performance.

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