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Monday, April 2, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Preview

Primer on the prince: Why this 'Hamlet' is so significant

Seattle Times theater critic

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A word with the director
Rising star sheds light on 'Hamlet' opening here
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In a season abounding in high-profile theater and film versions of "Hamlet," why does the stage production of Shakespeare's tragedy opening at Seattle's Mercer Arena this weekend stand out?

And why is it the most eagerly anticipated international drama event this city has seen since Russia's Sovremennick Theatre and the Grand Kabuki Theatre of Japan came to the Goodwill Arts Festival, back in 1990?

You can trace it all to the extraordinary cultural cachet of the show's director: the British-bred, Paris-based Peter Brook.

"The Tragedy of Hamlet"
Adapted and directed by Peter Brook.

Previews on Friday, opens Saturday and runs Tuesdays-Sundays through April 19 at Mercer Arena, Seattle Center. Tickets are $55-$75, with a limited number of $20 rush tickets for each performance available at the box office 30 minutes before showtime. 206-443-2222.

Brook will also give a free public lecture tomorrow from noon-1:30 p.m. at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. For more details about the show and lecture, call 206-443-2222 or log onto www.hamletinseattle.org.

It is Brook's status as one of the world's leading Shakespeare interpreters, and one of modern drama's most influential thinker-practitioners, that led four major Seattle theater companies (Seattle Repertory Theatre, Intiman Theatre, Empty Space Theatre and A Contemporary Theatre) to join forces to present the North American debut of his "Hamlet" at Mercer Arena. The show runs there Friday through April 19.

The engagement is quite a coup: "The Tragedy of Hamlet" comes here before it goes on to runs in New York and Chicago, then Vienna, Japan and England.

Yet despite Brook's vaunted status in the theater world, the Seattle stand is a risky venture, with a $900,000 price tag. According to Seattle Rep managing director Benjamin Moore, the local theaters collectively raised about half the production costs from such major arts donors as Kreielsheimer Foundation, the Allen Foundation and Microsoft. The other half must be recouped by selling a great many tickets, at $55 to $75 - a high tariff, by Seattle standards.

It's all worth it, insists Moore, who saw Brook's "Hamlet" in its Paris premiere in January and helped spearhead its tour here. "This is something I'm tremendously proud of being associated with," he says, noting the Rep hopes to bring other important drama troupes from abroad to Seattle if "Hamlet" is a success.

But while Brook is a major figure in Europe, and an inspirational icon to American drama students via his seminal 1969 book "The Empty Space," many Seattle-area theatergoers have little direct knowledge of the man's oeuvre. His company, comprised of actors from Europe, Asia and Africa, tours globally but has never visited the Northwest. His films, including "The Mahabharata" and "Marat/Sade" (both based on acclaimed Brook stage productions) are pegged as niche art films, and get limited distribution. So for those wondering what makes Brook and this "Hamlet" so noteworthy, here is a short primer on the artist and the production.

Who is Peter Brook? Still a vital, prolific dramatic artist at age 76, Brook was the director of production for London's Covent Garden Opera House by his early 20s, and had a long association with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, where his innovative productions of "Titus Andronicus," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "King Lear" won wide acclaim.

In 1970, Brook moved to Paris to set up the International Centre for Theatre Research, a laboratory for experimental productions. His company took over the derelict Bouffes du Nord Theatre, where his shows usually debut.

Brook has also directed many operas, numerous films (including "Lord of the Flies") and written a half-dozen books, including the recent memoir, "Threads of Time."

What is Brook's philosophy of theater? Brook is a strong proponent of theater that emphasizes language and acting over elaborate sets and effects.

His dictum, "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage" helped inspire a generation of artists to explore a distilled, energized but visually pared-down theatricality, influenced by such seminal European stage leaders as Bertolt Brecht and Jerzy Grotowski. Brook also championed multiethnic casting and cross-cultural fusions before they were fashionable.

What's his approach to "Hamlet"? This "Hamlet" features a small cast of eight, and runs only two hours and 20 minutes with no intermission - an hour less than most versions of the tragedy. It is staged on a single set, adorned only by a red carpet, a few cushions and a pair of stools.

To reveal "the purer and stronger and deeper" aspects of the play, Brook cut away about a third of Shakespeare's original text, rearranged scenes and speeches and omitted the geo-political dimension of the play, including the ascendancy of the prince of Norway, Fortinbras. He has explained that this is his way of "respecting Shakespeare": not to treat the text as sacrosanct, but "to listen and probe and dig as deeply as possible" into its meaning.

Who's who in this "Hamlet"? The show stars Adrian Lester, a widely respected British actor of Jamaican descent, as the distraught Danish prince. Other players include Brook's actress wife, Natasha Parry (as Gertrude), Indian performer Shantala Shivalingappa (as Ophelia) and the Trinidad-born Jeffrey Kissoon (as Claudius).

Why is "Hamlet" at Mercer Arena? Brook specified that the show could be performed for no more than 800 patrons at a time, in a venue with seating on three sides of the stage and maximum intimacy between actors and audience.

Since the ideal venue did not exist here already, a temporary 794-seat theater has been constructed at the south end of Mercer Arena, at a cost of $300,000. (After the run ends, Mercer Arena reverts to the control of Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet, which will reconfigure it into a much larger venue while the nearby Opera House undergoes renovations.)

Is there a cheap way to see this "Hamlet"? For each performance, 50 tickets will be available at $20 apiece on a "rush basis" half an hour before the show. And talk about intimacy, 20 of these will be pillows arranged around the perimeter of the stage. For details, call 206-443-2222.

Is this "Hamlet" worth all the expense, fuss and hype? That can't be answered until the show begins performances Friday night. But reviews for the Paris run have been favorable, Brook is a fascinating and singular creator, and his company is unlikely to return to Seattle any time soon.

Intiman Theatre artistic director Bartlett Sher says Brook's artistic genius and influence are reason enough to catch the show. "In the English-speaking theater, he's led the way for directors to reimagine great works in exciting new ways," says Sher. "If it weren't for Peter Brook, none of us would be thinking about Shakespeare in the way we do."

Misha Berson can be reached at mberson@seattletimes.com.

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