Between the Lines 

Richmond Shakespeare's “Hamlet” lets the prose carry itself, while Sycamore Rouge's “Read*y for Right” does history without the drama.

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It's all about the words in Richmond Shakespeare's production of “Hamlet.” By avoiding any temptation to prove anything by making big intellectual statements through offbeat sets or nontraditional casting, director Grant Mudge serves up a Spartan version of the play, a version that will appeal to Shakespeare novices and die-hard purists alike. But it's not so sparse that there's no life in the ghost story, the descent into insanity or Vanessa Passini's exhilarating fight choreography.

For anyone who slept through high school English class: “Hamlet” is a Jerry Springer story about a prince who becomes emotionally unstable because the ghost of his father tells him that he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, who is now married to Hamlet's mother. Richmond Shakespeare's version focuses on the text, which is complicated but for the most part beautifully managed by the key actors.

Jeff Cole as Hamlet does wonderful things with the words during the famous speeches (especially the “to be or not to be” speech), a gentle rolling quality. But the play is not so word-focused that it becomes dreary. Mudge effectively uses the space at Second Presbyterian Church to enhance his focus without overpowering it. The appearance of actors on the balcony and purposeful use of actors running through an adjacent hallway immerses the audience in the performances.

The focus on words in the production heightens the action that much more. A brilliantly staged fight scene between Joe Carlson's fiery Laertes and Hamlet snaps the audience to attention. Passini creates such realistic and electrifying swordplay in the tight audience-packed space that it caused gasps of amazement (and maybe some fear) from the audience. At one point I caught myself actually looking for blood from fictional nicks on actors' flesh. — Mary Burruss

As staged history, there's no denying the power of Sycamore Rouge's “Read*y for Right,” the story of a 1960 civil rights protest centered on the Petersburg Public Library. Determined residents led by two local pastors decide to defy a library rule restricting “Negroes” to the basement — they patronize the main reading room. A reactionary law is passed that imposes jail time and fines for this so-called trespassing. Subsequent protesters are thrown in jail, forcing a court battle.

But while this may be a galvanizing incident in Petersburg's past, as staged by writer and director kb saine, it doesn't quite rise to the level of compelling drama. Most of the characters portrayed barely register as two-dimensional, not to mention three. Much of the play consists of speeches, and even the dialogue is full of proclamations such as “We can make a difference here.” Perhaps most surprising: There are no bad guys. As one character sums up, the policemen and city officials whom the protesters face are never less than courteous.

Even without dramatic tension, the play does stir emotions, largely due to the excellent a cappella singing that carries the evening. Spiritual songs like “Jesus Walk With Me” punctuate the scene transitions and a finale led by Alejandro Ortiz is a roof-raiser. Thanks to the fervent delivery of Darius T. Epps as the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker and Larry Akin Smith as the Rev. R.G. Williams, a couple of the speeches hit home. Glenn Leftwich has some good scenes as a police chief who seems hesitant to enforce the new law.

In the end, the best moments are some of the smallest. The tentative reactions of librarian Theresa Hodges (Alison Haracznak) each time her quiet domain is disturbed elicit genuine laughter. It's in those scenes that “Read*y” actually seems like theater and not just re-enactment. — David Timberline

Richmond Shakespeare's production of “Hamlet” runs through Nov. 9 at Second Presbyterian Church, 5 N. Fifth St. Tickets are $13-$26. 866 BARD-TIX. “Read*y for Right: A Petersburg Story” is at Sycamore Rouge in Petersburg Friday through Sunday until Nov. 8. Tickets are $18-$22. Call 957-5707 for details.



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