Timothy McIntosh and Martha Benson as Hamlet and Ophelia

A quiet, reflective and very smart new production of Hamlet that opened this weekend at Cottage Theatre strips this well known Shakespeare tragedy down to bare visual essentials — and makes it fun to watch in the process.

Directed by Tony Rust, who is a force of nature on the local theater scene, the show stars an actor I’ve never before seen here — Timothy Mcintosh, a professor at New Hope Christian College and Gutenberg College. McIntosh is also a playwright; his Søn of Abraham (about the last three years of Søren Kierkegaard’s life), received a Best New Play award in 2008 from the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, and his screenplay Mandi was produced and released by Kalon Media in 2009. He also had a short play, High School How I Hated Thee, produced by the Northwest 10  new plays contest in Eugene in 2010.

McIntosh’s Hamlet is quirky and dynamic. It took me a while to warm up to his performance, as he seemed a little too odd at first, even for my bizarre tastes. But soon I realized I couldn’t take my eyes off of him on stage. As Hamlet descends into madness, McIntosh is in constant motion, and his expressive face seems at times to be made of rubber.

Other very strong performances came from Martha Benson, as Ophelia, and Mark Anderson, as Horatio. Benson has a strong background doing Shakespeare in New York, and Anderson is a familiar face around Eugene theater, having played Sir Belvedere in Very Little Theatre’s Spamalot and Andrew Ague in Cottage Theatre’s (and Tony Rust’s) wonderful Twelfth Night. Patrick Torelle is a perfectly platitudinous Polonius, Tracy Nygard is Gertrude, and Davis Smith is Claudius (and the ghost of the dead king). 

Rust is a director to watch. He’s got a strong sense of story telling and entertainment and is himself a consummate comic actor. He also designs his own sets, and the set for this Hamlet — a stark, simple abstraction in middle gray — focused our attention wonderfully on the play, which was presented in more or less period costume without making the characters look like they belonged in a museum.

I last saw Hamlet two months ago, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The show, directed by Lisa Peterson, featured heavy metal music by a big deal California guitarist on the big outdoor Elizabethan Stage, and a splendidly subtle rendition of the young Hamlet by Danforth Comins.

Cottage Theatre’s Hamlet was at least as much fun to watch as the one running in Ashland, and it actually had a scarier ghost. Tonight’s show easily held my attention for the entire three hour run time, and wrapped up in a skillful and exciting sword fight.

Hamlet runs through August 28. Go see it.