Johnny Stallings' Hamlet
Brooklyn Bay, 1825 SE Franklin, Bay K, 231-7876, Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, this weekend only, $10-15

A shortish, mousey, middle-aged guy with a squeaky voice, Johnny Stallings is a far cry from the first person you'd cast as Hamlet, or Polonius, or Ophelia, or for that matter, most of the characters he plays as he whizzes in a scant 90 minutes through his solo rendition of Shakespeare's greatest work. He's more the persona of Yorick the zany gravedigger, skipping around the Brooklyn Bay's garage space in bare feet and reciting even the heaviest lines with a slightly crooked grin. At the performance I attended he greeted people at the door as they entered and was still horsing around with a friend and her toddler minutes before curtain. I think he also forgot to take his coat off, unless the extra layer of clothing was intended for dramatic effect.

Not surprisingly, Stallings' disheveled quirkiness is charming, though the breeziness may also be deceptive--it takes great skill to make Shakespeare this approachable, and above all else, Stallings' grasp of the language is impeccable. As with his other solo Shakespeare effort, King Lear (which he's been doing for decades), Stallings glosses over sections of Hamlet with summary asides, and handles the dialogue scenes by simply moving to different parts of the room, distinguishing the different characters with only the smallest variations in posture and tone. The result should be clumsy and awkward, but the precision of his line readings, combined with his quirky sense of humor, makes it fluid. For the famous "Mousetrap" sequence, wherein the Player King and his traveling theater group subtly reenact Claudius' foul murder, Stallings pulls out a couple hilarious puppets, concluding the play-within-a-play with a wonderfully inappropriate and vulgar sex scene.

On the night I attended, Stallings' irreverent line readings induced surprised titters from the audience, but they also didn't seem out of place; like any old friend, Stallings' good-natured ribbing of Hamlet is just another extension of his love for it. And like old friends, Stallings and Hamlet can just sit out on the porch and shoot the shit, with nothing but the breeze and the birds to make their conversation entertaining.