Expect to hear all the classic Shakespeare dialogue (“To be or not to be …,” et al), but the Hippodrome Theatre’s version of the Bard’s play opening this week is anything but old school.
As soon as the lights come up on the Hippodrome Theatre’s production of Hamlet, audience members will realize they are not about to be mercifully stuck in the late Middle Ages for two hours.
There is a certain ubiquitous piece of technology that the protagonist gazes into that brings you right into the 21st century. Later on, there are scenes in which actors use certain other handheld devices to help advance the sordid plot.
Heck, even the costumes worn in the play are straight out of Jos. A. Bank and Ann Taylor rather than Ye Olde Fashion Shoppe.
In other words, this is not your grandfather’s Hamlet. And for that, we can all give (modern-day) props to Hippodrome artistic director Lauren Warhol Caldwell and her talented production design crew, not to mention her worthy hand-picked cast.
Although there is no mistaking that the spoken lines are those of Shakespeare, in this case the actions of the performers onstage speak as loud as the proper English dialogue, making for an engaging evening of theater — minus much of the pretentiousness.
“I put the play together, I put the story together as best as I can,” Caldwell said. “It’s up to each individual audience member how they react. Success to me is if everybody walked out of here and you asked them what they thought, you’d get 10 answers from 10 different people.”
The Hippodrome Theatre will present Hamlet eight times a week through May 7. Opening Night is Friday at 8, but there are discounted preview performances tonight and Thursday night at 7, with tickets costing a pittance ($18 each). Tickets for all regular performances are $30-$35 (discounted for students, seniors and active military).
Performances take place Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Next Tuesday (April 18) all tickets are $10. Following the Sunday, April 23, matinee performance, there will be a Talk Back session with the cast and director.
(Tickets are available through the Hippodrome box office at 25 SE 2nd Place (or by calling 352.375.4477) and online at the The Hippodrome website.)
To refresh your memory from ninth-grade English Literature class, Hamlet revolves around a Danish prince who discovers that there is, indeed, something rotten in Denmark. Following his father’s untimely death, Hamlet learns through the king’s ghost that murder was involved. All fingers point to the king’s brother, Claudius, who has conveniently married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and appointed himself king.
New York-based actor Michael Littig gives a gut-wrenching portrayal of Hamlet, who’s torn between madness and revenge after he ingeniously unravels the truth and motives behind his father’s death.
“I’ve known Michael since we did The Chosen, and that was about 8 or 10 years ago,” Caldwell said. “[Hamlet] is one of Michael’s favorite plays. He’s actually been studying it on and off for a couple of years — and I knew that — so we started talking about doing it a couple of years ago.”
Although Shakespeare wrote the play more than four centuries ago, the play’s twists and turns are eerily relatable to the current political climate.
“What’s interesting for me is that the urgency to tell the story now became more apparent in these times,” Littig said. “Any great play like Hamlet is a reflective mythology, so it’s a place where you go and see yourself in it at any given time. Based on the cultural lens of that particular moment, it becomes a way that you can look into the play.”
For example, one could look at the the unscrupulous and stone-faced Claudius (played by V Craig Heidenreich) and be tempted to draw comparisons to recently “crowned” rulers in modern times. Caldwell admitted that recent political events helped shape her modernized vision of the Hipp’s Hamlet.
“With the elections happening, I thought, ‘Well, you know what? Isn’t it interesting that we’re all so against each other?” she said. “No matter what side you’re on, it has turned us so sourly against each other and, really and truly, Claudius killing his brother and marrying his sister-in-law, and the ghost coming back has done the same thing the election has. It’s turned them all against each other.”
It only made sense to Caldwell to set Hamlet in 2017 and make it relevant.
“Everyday there’s something on the news that somebody either glorifies and says ‘That’s wonderful!” or somebody else says ‘That’s corrupt!'” she said. “We’re living in a world where it’s weighted on both sides. And that’s just like Hamlet. And there’s some omnipotence on top of us. There’s a greatness that we have to serve a larger thing than just ourselves, and so is Hamlet. He’s responsible for the kingdom, he’s responsible for his family. He’s responsible for taking Claudius out because of the deeds that he did.”
Heidenreich, a Juilliard-trained actor now based in Sarasota, is making his Hippodrome debut. However, he’s not a newcomer to the Bard and he fully appreciates Caldwell’s treatment of Hamlet.
“I have done a lot of Shakespeare and I have seen a lot of Shakespeare plays, and if there’s one thing I cannot stand is a ‘museum’ Shakespeare, or what I used to in the old days refer to as BBC Shakespeare,” he said.
“Every Hamlet you do is the same story. You’re always telling the same story and you’re using significant chunks of the same text, but the world in which it inhabits can change drastically, and that’s how the audience has the opportunity to come into it.”
The rest of the Hamlet cast should be familiar to Hippodrome audiences. Hipp Acting Company members include Sara Morsey (Gertrude), Bryan Mercer (Horatio), Lauren Nordvig (Ophelia), Niall McGinty, Logan Wolfe, Matthew Lindsay and Charlie Mitchell (all in multiple roles).
Nordvig, a UF grad, is making her third appearance in a Hippodrome production (previously Sirens and Venus in Fur). She said her performance as Hamlet’s tortured love interest speaks to modern times.
“I get a little frustrated in the play that [Ophelia] doesn’t have a voice as a young woman, and I think that we’re finding that in these times as well, unfortunately,” Nordvig said.
“I know what that anxiety is — wanting to be obedient to male authority figures and trying to figure out how to exist in that world and maybe failing a little bit, and she can’t summon the bravery or the courage. Hers is a different kind of courage. She sort of lets it all fall away.”
Morsey, who has performed at the Hippodrome for more than 20 years (most recently in A Christmas Carol and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), has a similar take on Gertrude. After all, the not-so-innocent queen has to endure one tragedy after another.
“I’m still discovering who Gertrude is,” she said. “It’s a journey because she is not an active, strong doer of force. She’s acted upon and everything blindsides her in this play. Finding how to take that and how to react to that and make it move forward and have variety is really a challenge.”
Although the Hippodrome’s production of Hamlet has a modern spin, Nordvig added that she hopes audiences still listen to and appreciate Shakespeare’s timeless voice.
“It takes a little [time] to get into it,” she said, “but as you start to realize that in this world, poetry is the way people express themselves, by the end of the play you know exactly what everyone is saying all of the time — if they’re following it with all of their heart. Sometimes I wish that language was still like that, that people appreciated it in that way, and I think that’s why Shakespeare is still done all of the time.”
— Noel Leroux
25 SE 2nd Place
Gainesville, FL 32601
Box office: 352.375.4477
Eight performances a week through May 7