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By Roger McBain, Evansville Courier & Press
March 22, 2010

'Hamlet' presentation loses ground to tight stage

"Hamlet" is easily one of William Shakespeare's best known and most quoted plays, but there's nothing easy about staging it.

That was apparent in the Repertory Project's opening production, presented in the University of Southern Indiana Theatre and New Harmony Theatre in USI's Mallette Studio Theatre.

"Hamlet" is a convoluted tale of apparitions, intrigues, feigned and utter madnesses, confused loves, intentional and accidental murders, revenges and recriminations, with pun-laced comic bits tossed in at odd moments.

Director Lenny Leibowitz's 18-member cast, composed of two Actors Equity professionals, 15 student players and Leibowitz, who cast himself in a major role, emerged from the gantlet with mixed success in Saturday's 31/2-hour performance, presented with one intermission to a nearly full house.

Kyle Rupert, a student who played walk-on parts in last season's Repertory Project, gave a remarkable performance in "Hamlet's" title role.

He embodied the horror, the rage and the tragic confusion of the Danish prince seeking revenge against the man who murdered his father, married his mother and stole Denmark's throne.

He and Preston Harris-Dunlap, the student playing Laertes, clashed spectacularly in a ferocious choreography of swordplay in the play's climactic duel.

Jasmine Ruckriegel offered another notable performance as Hamlet's bewildered mother, Gertrude. And Harris-Dunlap let out all the stops as Laertes, sobbing with sorrow and at the deaths of his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia, played by Equity actors John Windsor-Cunningham and Letitia Lange.

Lange delivered a harrowing portrayal of the Ophelia's downward spiral of betrayal, confusion and madness. And Windsor-Cunningham's Polonius was an engaging, entertaining and appealing blend of comic verbosity, earnest concern and unquestioning loyalty.

Despite some uneven acting, diction and delivery, Leibowitz's production featured strong performances in most key and several supporting roles, with some imaginative staging and nice comic bits.

The director's own performance as Claudius, the object of Hamlet's revenge, was underwhelming, however. Leibowitz moved, gestured and delivered nearly all his lines in what came across as a studied, declamatory style.

This "Hamlet" achieved an close-up immediacy and intimacy on scenic designer Robert Broadfoot's multilevel, thrust stage.

The studio theater's tight confines posed their own challenges, however, amplifying the offstage clatter of footsteps, the bumps and slides of props and moan of protesting door closures as actors entered and exited the hall between scenes.

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