Play:    “Hamlet”

Group:    Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Venue:    Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park

Dates:    Nightly through June 20 except Tuesdays and June 5

Tickets:    Free admission

Story:    While Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is away at school his father dies and his mother, Queen Gertrude, marries his uncle, Claudius, who becomes king.  Hamlet finds the brief period between his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage disquieting and suspicious, and his fears are verified when his father’s ghost reveals that Claudius murdered him.  Hamlet then reveals his quest for revenge to his friend and confidante Horatio.

The troubled prince also is attracted to Ophelia, the daughter of Claudius’ advisor Polonius, but his melancholy nature jeopardizes their relationship.  Even as Hamlet is intent upon uncovering Claudius’ guilt, the king plots to dispatch his nephew with the assistance of Hamlet’s treacherous schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the willing involvement of Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, who seeks revenge for deeds against his own family.

Highlights:    At its inception, the folks behind the birth, nurturing and development of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis vowed to produce the Bard’s greatest work, “Hamlet,” for its tenth anniversary season.  Under the leadership of its new executive director, Rick Dildine, and the masterful, carefully calibrated brush strokes of director Bruce Longworth, Shakespeare Festival has mounted a rousing and passionately convincing presentation of Will’s enduring tragedy.

    Anchored by a riveting and richly textured performance by Jim Butz in the title role, Longworth’s “Hamlet” provides a theatrical feast for eyes and ears, a cornucopia of haunting dialogue by the principals, raucous comic moments with earthy gravediggers and chilling, supernatural elements in the form of the ghost, accompanied by the ethereal sound design of Ann Slayton that incorporates the brooding, atmospheric music and effects by resident composer Robin Weatherall.

Other Info:    This 10th anniversary presentation is awash in the achievements of a primarily local cast and crew.  St. Louis native Butz’s portrayal of the “melancholy Dane” is crisp, clear and cogent, capturing Hamlet’s sharp intellect as well as his troubled psyche and runaway emotions.  The character’s famous soliloquy on existence, “To be or not to be,” in Butz’s interpretation clearly establishes the choices and subsequent results that Hamlet deduces from any future actions.

    The top-notch supporting cast features a wealth of high-caliber performances, marred on opening night only by the bizarre second-act cadence of John Rensenhouse as Claudius.  For whatever reason, his presentation of the king’s machinations seemed off-kilter in delivery and failed to match his firm grasp of the character’s complexities in the first act.

    Anderson Matthews offers a delightful interpretation of the pompous, opportunistic Polonius, while Jason Cannon’s convincing Horatio is valiant, true and dedicated in his friendship to Hamlet.  Whit Reichert’s First Gravedigger is a model of comic efficiency and his Marcellus epitomizes loyalty.  Mark Kelley is both a dapper and deadly Rosencrantz and teams seamlessly with Matthew Folsom as the scheming Guildenstern to demonstrate the duo’s duplicity.

    Deanne Lorette and Kimiye Corwin are marvelous as the troubled Queen Gertrude and the confused Ophelia, respectively, while Rob Krakovski is imposing as the Ghost and ingratiating as the Player King, who leads his entourage in Hamlet’s famous “Mouse Trap” skit designed to get a rise out of Claudius.  Others providing dependable portrayals include Justin Blanchard as the fiery Laertes, Aaron Orion Baker, Cale Haupert, Terry Meddows, Cameron Jamarr Davis, Lindsey Warren, Gary Glasgow and Aaron Sitrick.

    Paul Dennhardt’s expert fight and movement direction gives the sword scenes a sense of gritty reality.  John Wylie’s precise lighting draws attention both to moments of individual clarity as well as the grander scenes that play out on Jim Burwinkel’s imposing set that epitomizes the impressive scope of Elsinore Castle.  Costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis evoke the Elizabethan era of the setting.

    If you like, check out the mini-version of “Hamlet” titled “Trippingly Hamlet” prior to the 8 p.m. performance.  Adapted by Michael Perkins, Robin Weatherall and education director Christopher Limber, this brisk exercise in Shakespearean theatricality is smoothly directed by Robert A. Mitchell and designed to whet the appetite of patrons, as well as area students as part of the Shakespeare Festival Education Tour.  Perkins and fellow artists Khnemu Menu-Ra, Daniel John Kelly, Elana Kepner and Megan Cone, with the contributions of tour manager Anna Blair, act out the Bard’s ultimate tragedy in a tidy 20 minutes or so with exuberant flair and exhaustive energy.

Additionally, the Festival’s traditional Green Show, featuring “Juggling” Jeff Koziatek and Josh Routh, the “Sword-Swallowing Clown,” plays nightly beginning at 6:30 p.m.

All in all, the 2010 Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presentation is a sumptuous smorgasbord of tasty theatrical treats, and it’s all absolutely free.

Rating:        A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.