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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Hamlet' Howls in Brilliant Chaos

It has been three years -- a long time by the theatrical calendar -- since Yury Pogrebnichko's last full-fledged production at his Theater Na Krasnoi Presne. That show, a weird and wonderful adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's "The Marriage," retitled "When I Wrote, I Saw Before Me Only Pushkin," displayed to near perfection the director's rich imagination and his use of heavy irony and dense visual metaphors.

Whether or not the lull was the result of Pogrebnichko being stricken by a "doubting disease" ? la Hamlet is uncertain. But it is a fact that he has re-emerged from his hiatus with a characteristically quirky rendition of Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."

Pogrebnichko's style marks him no less indisputably than a fingerprint. Dispassionate actors stalk his tiny stage, delivering their lines with such a ponderous aura of importance that the underlying humor of it all crackles in the air like electricity. Their deadpan expressions and lethargic, almost mournful mannerisms seem to carry them off into an isolated, deeply private world of their own.

"Hamlet" fully maintains those elements of the bizarre, serving up multiple Hamlets, Ophelias and others. Each of Shakespeare's characters is capable at any moment of taking on one or another of the prince's attributes: the ranting intellectual (Andrei Kochetkov), the cool contemporary (Yury Pavlov) or the indifferent killer (Afanasy Trishkin).

When Trishkin's Hamlet murders Polonius (Valery Prokhorov) in Gertrude's chambers it is no mistake. He just walks up to the curtain where Polonius is hiding and plunges his dagger into it.

This is a world of lies and liars, conspiracies and spies where informing and backstabbing are a way of life. No one is surprised to become the victim of a plot, because everyone knows that he or she is not only capable of, but guilty of the same behavior.

Nadezhda Bakhvalova, who often dresses Pogrebnichko's actors in stylized prison-camp garb, this time emphasized the clone-like monotony of a conspiratorial world by putting everyone in long, loose black overcoats. The women wear metal hoops that protrude from under their coats, providing the only reference to traditional feminine clothing. The minimalist set by Yury Kononenko (who died in December) is dominated by an open trap door-like grave at center stage and the rusty, dented iron panels lining the walls.

Shakespeare's play has been heartily transformed. Many key monologues have been edited or reshuffled, while some have disappeared. But, especially in the very strong first act, the new arrangements only give the play a sharper focus. The atmosphere of conniving and scheming -- like the fun of theater rooting them out of their hiding places -- is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

The second act, though still clinging to the production's strengths as a whole, occasionally buckles under the weight of Pogrebnichko's almost scholarly fascination with intertextual play. Long scenes from Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and Chekhov's "Three Sisters," joined with quotes from Mikhail Lermontov's poetry, shatter the tight focus of the first act, and begin making you feel as if you are in a literature class with quiz to follow.

More to the point are the occasional sound tracks of the late Innokenty Smoktunovsky performing one of the great traditional Hamlets from Grigory Kozintsev's 1964 film. The spectral presence of Smoktunovsky's inspired classicism amid Pogrebnichko's inspired deconstruction reminds us how flexible a truly great play can be.

"The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" (Tragedia o Gamlete, printse datskom) plays Feb. 23 and 24 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Na Krasnoi Presne, 9a Voznesensky Pereulok. Tel. 290-2557. Running time: 2 hours, 20 mins.