Austin Shakespeare fuses matter and art in a well-balanced take on the tragedy

More light!: Helen Merino as Hamlet
"More light!": Helen Merino as Hamlet


Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside, 474-5664
Through Oct. 9
Running time: 3 hr., 20 min.

Admittedly, I think Shakespeare is best when performed without much to detract from all those words, words, words. But I was pleasantly surprised by how well the intricate and impressive design of Austin Shakespeare's Hamlet works to complement both the text and director Ann Ciccolella's well-cast actors. The production elements coalesce to create what lighting co-designer Patrick W. Anthony calls a "mood ring" effect, changing to reflect the play's emotional pendulum.

Anthony, along with lighting powerhouse Jason Amato, uses colored lights to enhance Kevin Beltz's striking set, creating visual effects on two red floor-to-ceiling canvas banners flanking the stage. Particularly arresting is the violent backlighting that heightens the drama of the Claudius prayer scene. Lighting also cleverly reduces scene changes. Though chairs are used occasionally to supplement Beltz's basic set-piece – a large ramp at center stage – it is lighting, not bulky sets, that distinguishes each scene. My favorite was the menacing yet almost imperceptible suggestion of a flickering fire in a secluded room where Claudius and Laertes plot Hamlet's murder. Also of note are Pamela Fletcher Friday's polished and elegant 19th century period costumes. Sound is the only tenuous design: John Vander Gheynst's ambitious music, though it creates suspense in the tense opening scene, often lengthens transitions in the already long production.

As elaborate as the show's design is, it doesn't overshadow the spirited actors, who are held together by the boyish and mesmerizing urgency of Helen Merino, an Austin Shakespeare veteran reprising the role of Hamlet she played a decade ago. Merino savors every word – and she says a lot of them – but even when she is most pensive, her performance never lags; she conveys Hamlet's profound interior conflict with startling clarity and boundless energy, especially the bookish prince's introspective reluctance to enact his revenge on King Claudius, played by a brusque Ray Schultz. And though Hamlet resents the betrayals of Gertrude and Ophelia, Merino oscillates with ease between rage and longing love, aided by dynamic chemistry with both Hamlet's mother, played delicately by Kate Shaw, and his ex-girlfriend, played with great pathos by powerful newcomer Chelsea Duvall. A highlight is the nunnery scene, in which Hamlet furiously throws sobbing Ophelia to the ground and then kneels to embrace her in a regretful, tender caress. Though not all of the supporting cast members reach the emotional intensity of these actors, Scott Shipman (Polonius) and Steve Cruz (Rosencrantz, Bernardo, Captain) give standout performances.

With complicated technical elements, including an unusual take on the ghost (which I won't spoil here), this production has the potential to come off like the effusive Polonius, to whom Gertrude sighs, "More matter with less art." But Austin Shakespeare has fused matter and art to create a well-balanced Hamlet that, despite its length, is worth watching.

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Hamlet, Austin Shakespeare, Ann Ciccolella, Helen Merino, Ray Schultz, Kate Shaw, Chelsea Duvall, Scott Shipman, Steve Cruz, Patrick W. Anthony, Jason Amato, Kevin Beltz, Pamela Fletcher Friday

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