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Theatre de la Jeune Lune takes its imaginative, action-packed "Hamlet" on the road

From their name, you'd think this company hails from a French-speaking country. When they toured their darkly comic version of MoliËre's "Tartuffe" last year, some people wondered if it would be played in the original language. But ThÈ‚tre de la Jeune Lune (the name means "theater of the new moon") works in English and is headquartered in Minneapolis, where it's called plain old Theater de la June Loon.

The ensemble was, in fact, founded in Paris a quarter-century ago, by students of Jacques Lecoq, whose eclectic aesthetic still guides them. It's an extravagantly physical theater, grounded in a sense of playfulness and emotional directness. Drawing on traditions that include comedia dell'arte and circus clowning, mask theater and modern dance, Jeune Lune brings a rambunctious energy to its stagings. The company is particularly noted for irreverent but emotionally respectful reexaminations of classic plays.

This year's touring production, which stopped at the University of Massachusetts November 1-2, 2002 on a 12-city tour, is "Hamlet," not only the world's most famous play but arguably the most exhaustively interpreted. This rendition is a first-time collaboration between Jeune Lune and two old classmates from the Lecoq School, Paddy and Fredericka Hayter of the Footsbarn Traveling Theatre. Both troupes share a love of striking imagery and boisterous action, as well as a commitment to an immediate, accessible connection with their audience.

Paddy Hayter, as director, has a bipolar vision of "Hamlet," creating a production that is at once intimate and explosive. Moments of stillness battle with sudden pulsating action, like madness overtaking the contemplative mind. Set designer Fredericka Hayter sees Elsinore, the seat of Danish kings, not as a stony castle but as a desert. The stage floor is covered in real sand, lit by bowls of leaping fire and oasised by dark pools of water.

The director has pared the script down to its dramatic essentials, both cutting and rearranging the text. He's reduced the cast to the royal family and its immediate circle. Gone are Hamlet's hapless school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Also missing is the invading Norwegian general Fortinbras. Apart from the arrival of the strolling players engaged by Hamlet to "catch the conscience of the king," Elsinore is a closed system, and the play becomes a claustrophic domestic drama about people too tightly entangled in each other's lives.

Jeune Lune co-founders Barbara Berlovitz and Vincent Gracieux play Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, and Claudius, the usurping uncle who poisoned the king and married the queen to snatch the throne. Their relationship illustrates Jeune Lune's penchant for manifesting text and subtext physically -- these two aren't regal elders but randy honeymooners who can't keep their hands off each other. Almost every feeling in the play is made action. When Hamlet, played by Steven Epps, tells Ophelia (Sarah Agnew) to get herself to a nunnery, he practically throws her there. And when he berates his mother for "posting with such dexterity to incestuous sheets," he seizes her bed and tries to tear it apart.

On one level "Hamlet" is a ghost story -- a young prince urged to bloody revenge by the spirit of his murdered father. The ghostly theme is embodied by a kind of Greek chorus of white-robed figures, mute and masked, who haunt every scene. They are the passive attendants of the royal court, helpless onlookers to the unfolding tragedy. They also double as props and scenery on the bare expanse of stage. At one point their robes, hanging from outstretched arms, become the curtain old Polonius is hiding behind when Hamlet stabs him, thinking it's the king.

The "new moon" in Jeune Lune's name is a metaphor for the troupe's mission of finding the new in the old. They call themselves a theater of the imagination, challenging audiences to bring their own imaginations to the engagement between spectators and performers that is live theater. This imaginative "Hamlet" tours the country through December 8th, 2002.

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