HAMLET theatre review

The theatre department of Jacksonville University opened a two weekend run of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Swisher Theater on the campus in Arlington. The second weekend will run April 15, 16 and 17.
Hamlet, the world’s most famous play, is the most produced of the many plays penned by Shakespeare, and also the most analyzed of all his work. A simple plot description would go like this: a young Danish prince, motivated by a visit from the ghost of his father, vows to kill his murderous uncle, who has married his mother and usurped the throne of Denmark.
Directors and producers all over the world have used varied settings and interpretations for this play. Jacksonville University‘s Director Deborah Jordan has her own vision of Hamlet, and her creative version lives up to the advertising on the dramatic poster: “Shakespeare, like you’ve never seen before!” This four-hour play has been carefully edited down to a production of two and a half hours, while retaining the essential plot points and subplots, and Shakespeare’s marvelous language.
The first thing you will notice after the play begins is the unique and creative costuming by Allison Steadman, inspired by biker attire. Biker attire from the 17th century, to be more precise. The cast is largely in black leather, with studs and boots. Shakespeare probably did not foresee this. Ophelia does have more feminine attire, a pink-coral gown, and the queen wears a light colored wrap that softens the look. Also, a troupe of itinerant players wears simple clothing in rustic hues.
The set designed and created by Ben Wilson was designed as a giant iceberg rising from a raked stage, with very dark walls and stone ramps, without furnishings. It was perfect for this dark, brooding interpretation of Hamlet.
The lighting design by Misty Livingston is a large part of the experience. With mostly black clothing and a dark stage and background, the many lights pierce the almost always present mist and fog with shafts of illumination. And in one of the most creative uses of lighting ever, Livingston uses a stream of light to construct a curtain to conceal Polonius as he spies on Hamlet.
In addition, Director Jordan has done some non-traditional casting that is interesting and effective. Most notable is the casting of Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio as a female in the person of JU senior Lesley Nadwodnik. When Hamlet hugs Horatio, you may, as we did, wonder if there is possibly more than just a buddy-buddy thing going on. Others cast as females were Rosencrantz (Lindsay Olson) and one of the grave diggers played by Janae Lafleur.
The principals all gave strong performances. Nick Boucher, sporting a beard and a mostly shaved head, gives Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle and stepfather, a very powerful and sinister feeling.
Mya Brown as Queen Gertrude is convincing as her emotions are pulled in different directions by her new husband and her son. Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest, is well acted by Michele McGovern as a very young woman who has little control over her own destiny; her descent into madness is a wrenching experience Freshman Mitchell Oné in his first role at JU gives a strong presence to Laertes, the son of the chief counselor, Polonius (Brian Trumble). Milton Threadcraft III is an imposing figure as the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras.
One of the most coveted roles in theatre is that of Hamlet, and we have seen some very different Hamlets over the years. Samuel Smid handles this demanding role with aplomb. His Hamlet is vigorous, moves with finesse and looks princely indeed. Mr. Smid’s diction is precise, with excellent projection, so the audience could hear every word clearly throughout the theatre.
Others in this fine cast include Roy Matos (Guildenstern), David Bilbray (Francisco), Paul Melian(Osric), Daniel Prill (Marcellus), Brittani Wyskocil(Corenlius), Diana Freeberg (Voltemand), Wayne Woodson(clown), Eric Freiberger(Player King), Tatiana Zapardino (Player Queen), Alex Frost (Lady in Waiting), Jet Thomas(Lady in Waiting), Steven Taylor(Captain/Priest), Andre Miller(Lord Attendant), Sapphire Garrett (English Ambassador) and Douglas Hazzard (Voice of King Hamlet’s Ghost). The Ghost was created as a large projected amorphous image and was quite effective.
The scene we always look forward to is the final sword fight, where all the major players meet their death. Director Jordan brought in Lynn McNutt, a member of the Society of American Fight Directors to choreograph it. The results were excellent, leading to an exciting and dramatic but tragic ending to this intriguing tale from the Bard.
Post Script: if the final fight seen inspires you to take up fencing as a hobby, see the advertisement in the program by the Jacksonville Fencing Club. Yes, there is a fencing club open to ages 8 to 98. Check out www.jaxfencingclub.org.
Don’t miss this exceptional evening of classic theatre with JU’s unique production of Hamlet. The program has an excellent synopsis of the plot, so be sure to read it before the show.