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Taking on the title role of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is practically a losing proposition. Whether you are fighting against the interpretations of the past (every big-name actor has tackled it) or trying to best the sky-high expectations of the audience, the actor poised to run Shakespeare's difficult race hits the starting line loaded down with some heavy baggage.
The news coming out of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of "Hamlet" is that Avery Clark, the native Arkansan who plays the tormented Danish prince, is up to the task and then some. It's hard to imagine another Hamlet generating as much humor — yes, genuine laughs — as Clark does. His performance sets the tone for this production, sharply directed by the Rep's artistic director Bob Hupp with great assistance by a team of designers. Hupp and his actors, working on his two-and-a-half-hour trimmed-down version, get out of their own way and deliver a "Hamlet" that is, above all, exceedingly and excitingly clear.
Clark, dressed in all-black (naturally) but with leather motorcycle boots providing a nice rebel exclamation point, is a manic melancholy Dane. He makes plain, from his opening moment on stage off by himself and fighting back tears, that this young prince is whiplashed by emotions. And this is before he sees the ghost of his dead father who will eventually send him on his roundabout quest for revenge.
All gangly arms and legs and darting eyes, Clark captures so perfectly the mood swings — one minute he's jumping into the arms of Rosencrantz (Michael Markham) and Guildenstern (Joel Rainwater) and the next he's pouncing on poor Ophelia (Nikki Coble). This is a Hamlet just unhinged enough to be truly terrifying — it makes sense that Claudius' court would be disturbed. Clark also bravely carves jokes out of Shakespeare's knotty language that many other actors couldn't find or would let pass (his last line to his mother as he's dragging out Polonius' body is worth the price of your ticket). Clark is so electric and vivid that every other actor improves in his presence.
But then this "Hamlet" is well cast, every actor adept at finding a clear purpose. Harris Berlinsky's Polonius is not the prattling fool normally seen but a much more wrenching figure — an officious, soft-spoken man who seems to be stricken by his pronouncements as soon as he makes them. Coble's Ophelia is particularly vulnerable and moving after she goes mad, skipping around on the stage passing out her wilted flowers. J. Center, as the Player King and especially as the Grave Digger, puts an eccentric, memorable stamp during his turns on stage.
Hupp's focus is on the action, the forward motion of Shakespeare's anti-revenge revenge play. Mike Nichols' set, a wood and steel-beamed place cross-hatched with shadows, is a striking space. Hupp has set this "Hamlet" in 1914 and it's a good move if for no other reason than for the sumptuous costumes of Margaret McKowen. Really, the Rep has made incredible, underrecognized strides in costuming in the last couple of years. The designers often change with each show but the work is uniformly excellent.
In the end, what you want from "Hamlet" is an opportunity to hear those speeches and see and feel the young prince wrestle with mortality. The Rep gives Clark a great platform and, like an athlete in his prime, he seizes the moment. It's a thrilling thing to witness.
Remaining performances are 7 p.m. Nov. 4 and 10-11, 8 p.m. Nov. 5-6 and 12-13, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Nov. 7 and 14. Tickets range from $25 to $60. The box office is 378-0405; website is therep.org.