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Lantern's 'Hamlet' is worthy of the Bard

Howard Shapiro of Philadelphia Inquirer

Yes, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but something is also remarkable: Lantern Theater's electrifying production of Hamlet, which opened Tuesday night on a sparse Center City stage that could not seem fuller, and with a cast that could not be finer.

William Shakespeare wrote his tragedy almost 410 years ago, but given this smooth, dynamic staging by Lantern's artistic director, Charles McMahon, and this facile interpretation, the Bard could have spun off his longest play while taking a break from bangers and mash just this year.

There's no telling like this sort of Shakespeare telling. It's filled with famous lines and speeches delivered so that you hear them again, for the first time. What a piece of work is man? In this production, what a piece, indeed.

It may seem absurd to say that the Philadelphia actor Geoff Sobelle, at 33, is giving the performance of his life. Well, he is. Hamlet is one of the Western stage's juiciest roles, and Sobelle makes it his own, in a stunning reimagining of the character who feigns madness to avenge his father's death. In Sobelle, Hamlet is at once prince of Denmark, of darkness, of light, and of a black hole he alone can navigate.

Darkly handsome, and propelled across the thrust stage like a spring just released, Sobelle is a smart, physical actor with credits both classical and outre. (In the latter category, he's a member of Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company.)

In last fall's Philly Live Arts/Fringe festival, he astonished audiences at the bizarre Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl, when at one point he roared out from the side, bolted into the air, and crossed the stage by running atop a series of high, narrow partitions. When the time is right in Hamlet, he flings himself onto and around a scaffolding with a monkey's ease, while spouting Shakespeare as if it were everyday patois.

These devices could turn a lesser actor's Hamlet to ham, but there's not a false moment in Sobelle's mix of mockeries, exaggerations, and fixations. He leads a cast that builds in intensity with each scene - a unified focus that sucks you in, as though you're on stage, a sidekick in the play.

Joe Guzmán is a convincing Claudius, Hamlet's murdering uncle and now the king. The excellent Mary Martello is Hamlet's mother, and veteran actor Tim Moyer plays the ill-fated Polonius, the king's chamberlain. Andrew Kane is his son, whose swordplay with Hamlet is convincingly staged by J. Alex Cordaro.

Laertes' sister, Ophelia, is portrayed with real passion by Melissa Dunphy, the striking actress who last year hit bull's-eyes in two young-lover roles at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. She is unquestionably the city's leading Shakespeare ingenue. Dan Hodge is Hamlet's pal Horatio, and Dave Johnson and Dallas Drummond are the bumpkin courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The wonderfully threatening sound - low rumbles, a plaintive organ - is by Nick Rye, and the deft lighting by Drew Billiau. Along with everyone at Lantern, they turn tragedy into achievement.

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