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Hamlet holds up the mirror 

From the beginning of Mark Cuddy's Hamlet at Geva Theatre Center the production's clear priority is theatrical artifice. The purpose of playing, Hamlet says, is to hold a mirror up to nature; this Hamlet holds the mirror up to the stage.

We begin with the Players, who show up in Shakespeare's text some seven scenes later. And though he cuts out a whole lot of the play, Cuddy finds time here to interpolate Puck's epilogue from A Midsummer Night's Dream, which asks for applause for play-acting. Then later in the play come Shakespeare's original two scenes for the Players. Finally, the long-gone Players are brought back for last-word emphasis.

So we can relax and be entertained. And if we are to pass judgment, it will be on the playing, not the play. The large cast is generally skilled and adept. The designs are handsomely executed in stylized form. And the presentation is engaging and often involving, if almost never deeply moving.

And what about having a woman playing Hamlet? I know of a half-dozen great actresses who have played the Prince of Denmark, so that's nothing revolutionary. I'm troubled by Cuddy's story about hearing Kelli Fox act and thinking that hers was the voice of Hamlet, because her voice is much higher than that of any young man over 13 that I've known, except for one who was made rather vicious fun of by his peers.

But she's a fine actress whom I've admired in many classic and modern roles, and she gives an excellent reading of this role. I was particularly impressed with her Hamlet's big scene with his mother.

What if we must accept her Hamlet as a real male? Ms. Fox doesn't look like an adolescent male, but since the story is thought to be about Denmark around the end of the first millennium, an heir to the throne could have been a student then at such a tender age. And two of Hamlet's fellow students at Wittenberg University, Jason Ma's Horatio and Chad Goodridge's Guildenstern, could pass for teenagers. That Wittenberg was founded more than 300 years after the Danish story of Hamlet was written is Shakespeare's error, not Cuddy's.

We're not dealing with an attempt at realism. Skip Greer's eerie Ghost of old King Hamlet is unforgettable, but his First Player and Player King are deliberately stylized, as is Jens Hinrichsen's Player Villain. Jordan Charney is wittily funny as the Gravedigger, but his loud Polonius is all Acting.

John Campion has all the technique necessary for his commanding Claudius, but he reminds me of a famed actor of yesteryear, Maurice Evans, producing more elocution than believable emotion. And it's fitting that Calli Sarkesh --- who is ordinary as virile Marcellus but stylistically on the money when doubling as the Player Queen --- then triples wickedly as the close-to-effeminate Osric, whose "flourishes" Hamlet ridicules. 

In contrast, Carolyn Swift's girlish, sensual Queen Gertrude, Lori Prince's adorable Ophelia, and Stafford Clark-Price's passionate Laertes play generally naturally with good dramatic results. And John Stead's fight choreography is excitingly close to real-looking.

But Cuddy moves them all in rather stagy patterns, sometimes to hypnotic effect. G.W. Mercier creates changing scenes and striking pictures with dark, grand-looking sets of mostly huge panels that slide horizontally and checkerboard floors that move up and down. His costumes could seem realistic, but are all uniformly designed in a color pattern of black and white, emphatic red, plus gold and silver. Ann G. Wrightson's lighting and Gregg Coffin's original music highlight the theatrically effective totality of this very composed production.

This Hamletis artistically impressive, lively, and has the dignity of a tragedy. But six major characters and two minor ones die in it, and there's not a wet eye in the house.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, directed by Mark Cuddy, plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through May 15 at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard. Tickets $13.50 to $48.50. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org

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