Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hamlet with Helen Merino, Austin Shakespeare at the Rollins Theatre, Long Center, September 22 - October 9

Helen Merino in Hamlet (poster: Austin Shakespeare)

The question that must be addressed when discussing this Hamlet staged by Austin Shakespeare is not "Why cast Helen Merino for the title role?" but rather "What does casting Helen Merino as Hamlet do to the play?"

Merino played Hamlet ten years ago for the same organization, then known as the Austin Shakespeare Festival, at free performances in Zilker Park downtown. She was an Austin favorite at that time; a 2001 article in the weekly Austin Chronicle identified her as one of the 40 "most valuable players" on Austin stages. Merino returned to Austin to play the title role in Schiller's Mary Stuart in February, 2010, and won a B. Iden Payne award for it, the highest recognition voted by members of the Austin theatre community. We know that she's a pro, and the prospect of seeing her in Shakespeare is a draw. But what happens to the play?

Director Ann Ciccolella crafts a vigorous, professional production, as always, with highly talented actors, many of whom we've seen before in Austin Shakespeare productions. She gives Merino the straightforward task of portraying a man, a prince, a would-be sovereign haunted by the questionable ghost of his father -- represented here with the ingenuity of puppetry as a 15-foot-tall spectre with a voice like that of Darth Vader. The puppetry is credited to Gary Jaffe.

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