Heartwood Regional Theater Company’s final production of its 20th anniversary season, "Hamlet," is a perfect example of the high caliber performances that have been drawing audiences to the Poe Theater over the past two decades … Talk about ending on a high note!
“Hamlet” is said to be William Shakespeare’s greatest work. It has been drawing audiences since it was written in 1599. And with the extraordinary cast Artistic Director Griff Braley has assembled, you will want to be among the audiences for one (or perhaps two) of the six performances: July 28, 29 and Aug. 2-5.
Full disclosure before I continue: This is my favorite Shakespearean play. I have seen it performed in Connecticut, of particular note at the former American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Connecticut in the early ’70s. A gorgeous theater where in 1956, John Houseman became artistic director replacing Denis Carey who had the position a year before. Carey had also been manager of The Old Vic across The Pond. Outside the theater were knights on Percheron horses carrying banners flying in the wind; other employees wandering around in period dress … It’s where I fell in love with Shakespeare. Who wouldn’t?
From the start, with Bernardo and Marcellus (Harrison Pierpan) witnessing the apparition of the late King Hamlet created through special visual effects and screens, I knew I was in for a great ride. Anyone who thinks Shakespeare is easy for an actor is deceiving themselves. First off, the language doesn’t naturally roll off the tongue! We have seen many of these fine actors in various Heartwood productions over these past 20 years and? with this production, each has outdone themselves.
In the title role is Thomas Daniels, an actor based in New York City who is no stranger to the work of The Bard. His portrayal of Hamlet is deep and true; you will feel what he feels. Daniels portrays Hamlet with sensitivity, depth, and, perhaps even a bit of love for the sensitive, conflicted, and pensive young man. To be … or not to be … this soliloquy, said to be the most famous of all time, has to be a tad intimidating for an actor … some of the greatest actors in “theaterdom” have spoken those words from Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton to Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh. But, here’s the thing: No matter which actor portraying Hamlet says them, it’s like you are hearing them for the first time. Hamlet wrestles with action and inaction, life and death, love and loss … should I stay or should I go? Daniels delivers this poignant moment with heart.
Nanette Fraser plays Queen Gertrude, the widowed wife of King Hamlet who marries her brother-in-law Claudius, but a few months after the King’s death – an action that Hamlet finds abhorrent. Shakespeare never really tells us much about her, about her motives or anything that exposes depth of character. It isn’t until the confrontation scene with Hamlet that we see any real emotion. Hearing her son express his feelings about her remarriage to his uncle, so soon after his father’s death, and feeling the intensity of Hamlet’s emotions is the first time Gertrude expresses real emotion. Nanette is really great in this scene revealing Gertrude’s vulnerability and her fear of, and for, her son. When Hamlet accidentally kills Ophelia’s father Polonius, hidden from view, thinking it is his uncle, Nanette shows us a queen on the verge of a breakdown. There is so much going on in this scene … but, as many of you know, the same can be said for most every scene in this play. And her wardrobe (more modern day than Elizabethan) is lovely!
New King Claudius is played by Joe Lugosch who adroitly portrays a character most of us love to hate, too strong a word? OK, intensely dislike then. Hey, he kills his brother, marries his sister-in-law and plots the murder of his nephew-son. What’s to like? Lugosch is a stately, imposing Claudius whose stage entrances and exits caused my top lip to curl ever so slightly. Well done, Joe!
Ophelia’s father, Polonius, played by Tim Cunningham, is the other character in this play that elicits a similar lip-curling response. There’s certainly no shortage of men telling the women in Elsinore what to do, or in Ophelia’s case, what not to do. Deceptive, controlling, and generally smarmy … Ophelia didn’t stand a chance. Tim knows his character well. He’s much more likable as the gravedigger.
I wish I could write about Ophelia, unfortunately, Honora Boothby was ill the night I attended a dress rehearsal. Fortunately, I plan on attending one of the shows and look forward to seeing her then. This has to be the most challenging – and desirable – role for an actor.
The remaining cast members delivering oustanding performances are Emily Sue Barker of Boothbay who portrays First Player, playing recorder during The Play, and Osric during the duel; Nick Miaoulis as Hamlet’s steadfast friend Horatio (who’s crushing on Hamlet big time); Raymond Huth as Laertes and Player Lucianus; Elias Bassett – Bernardo and Guildenstern; Harrison Pierpan as Marcellus and Rosencrantz; Joseph Coté as the King Hamlet’s Ghost and the Player King; Ben Schwink – the Player Queen and Priest at Ophelia’s funeral.
The duel with swords at the play’s end between Hamlet and Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, is quite engaging and had me sitting up higher in my seat! Stephen Shore, who’s worked with Griff on other Heartwood productions, was the stage combat choreographer and Raymond Huth was fight captain.
While talking with Griff, I discovered that we both agree Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production is the best version – glorious sets, costumes, actors. I have it in both tape and DVD formats and have watched it many times. I loved Branagh as Hamlet. And, while I’m at it, I have to say, Mel Gibson really surprised me; his interpretation of Hamlet is a favorite as well.
But back to Heartwood’s production! This is an adaptation of “Hamlet” based in part on the Folger Shakespeare Library Hamlet (2015), the Arden Shakespeare Hamlet (2006) Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, editors, and the Royal Shakespeare Company performance cut (2010). Heartwood also consulted many commentaries and incorporated several ideas discovered in “Hamlet & Revenge,” by Eleanor Prosser, Stanford University Press.
There are but six performances at 7:30 p.m. – Friday, July 28 and Saturday, July 29; Wednesday, Aug. 2, Thursday, Aug. 3, Friday, Aug. 4 and Saturday, Aug. 5. – so be sure to get thee to the Poe! Tickets are $30 for adults and $5 for students. Get yours by calling 207-563-1373 or email email@example.com
For those of you who have never seen a Heartwood production and love Shakespeare, the Poe Theater is at 81 Academy Hill Road in Newcastle.