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This production of ‘Hamlet’ is a literal walk in the park

Jerusalem’s Theater in the Rough makes a triumph of Shakespeare’s tragedy, running through August 28

Natan Skop, left, as Hamlet, and Ira Skop as Ghost, in Theater in the Rough's production of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet.' (Yitz Woolf)
Natan Skop, left, as Hamlet, and Ira Skop as Ghost, in Theater in the Rough's production of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet.' (Yitz Woolf)

Is “Hamlet” allowed to be so much fun?

That is the question hovering above Theater in the Rough’s lively production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which has four more performances en promenade in Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Garden and an extra seated show on August 17 at Beit Moses on Derech Beit Lechem.

Beth Steinberg’s delightful direction pays dividends from the start, as Yaar Drori’s simple but effective music accompanies the opening scenes, which that take advantage of Max Bill’s monumental “Four Cubes” sculpture as a fitting backdrop for kings, ghosts and nervous guards. If this set design was replicated at the Barbican, it would win awards.

“To thine own self be true,” Polonius counsels his son Laertes (a lively Shiri Berzack), in a sermonizing speech elevated to subtle comedy when Laertes and his sister chime in with the stock phrases they — and the audience — have heard so often from their pompous father, deftly played by Ira Skop.

The pared-down script works well, propelling us through the action at twice the speed of a normal Shakespeare production without the usual lapses into unintelligible Elizabethan humor and the tedious mysteries of minor characters. It’s not quite a tweet, but this is Shakespeare that even kids reared on fast-action superheroes will be able to enjoy.

Natan Skop’s Hamlet is a tortured, self-conscious manipulator of friends and family who performs his roles within a role with a knowing wink and a welcome intimacy. “The play’s the thing,” he reminds the audience, somehow finding fresh ways to deliver lines so familiar that half the audience is mouthing them along with him. This Hamlet doesn’t declaim; he shares as if in group therapy — luring us into the psychiatric ward where “Denmark is a prison.”

Cast of Theater in the Rough’s production of ‘Hamlet.’ (Yitz Woolf)

As the action moves further into the park, we plunge headlong into the madness unleashed by Claudius’s murder of a king and the brazen bedding of a queen, and deeper into the shadows of intrigue as the sun sets and night falls on this doomed and damned family.

Steinberg combines the magic of Shakespeare with the charm of the surroundings to conjure strong performances from the ensemble cast. We genuinely feel for Abigail Ellis’s Horatio, as he tries to keep his BFF Hamlet from going over the edge, and Annabelle Landgarten’s Gertrude, hovering between concern for her son and loyalty to her new husband and king, manages to convince us of her innocence in Claudius’s plot.

Andrea Katz’s enjoyment as she leads the players is infectious and Talya Bem’s Ophelia makes us wish she had opted for the nunnery as she passionately evokes the horror of her father’s untimely death at the hand of the man she hoped to marry.

The strong ensemble cast seems to be having far too much fun amid the mayhem, climaxing with Gillian Kay’s hilarious gravedigger and the long-anticipated appearance of “Alas, poor Yorick”’s iconic skull. By this time, Hamlet is so in step with his audience that everyone chants the lines together.

I’ve seen more productions of “Hamlet” than I care to remember. This is one I won’t forget.

Natan Skop as Hamlet, in Theater in the Rough’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ (Yitz Woolf)

Hamlet: In motion

Theater in the Rough
Shows begin at 5:30 p.m. on August 15, 16, 26, 27, and 28
Bloomfield Gardens (Behind King David Hotel), Jerusalem
Special pre-show workshop for kids: Monday, August 27
Seated performance: 11 a.m. August 17, Beit Moses, Derech Beit Lechem
Free entrance. Suggested donation: NIS 35
More details here

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