Review by Alan Jozwiak of Hamlet: CCM Acting
“Tne union of the epic with the familiar.”
These words comes from Susan Felder’s Director’s Notes from the CCM Acting Main Stage production Hamlet. They aptly describe the overall tone of her production.
Felder beautifully sets her production of Hamlet during the Roaring Twenties in Denmark at a time when the fun and frivolity masks the horror witnesses during the First World War. The epic scope of Hamlet (revenge and dynastic succession, etc.) is set against some very familiar concerns that all people have with parental conflicts and lost love.
In my LCT reviews, I sometimes have not given enough credit to the director of shows, largely because it is hard to distinguish between an actor’s talent and a director’s hand at polishing that talent so that it shines brighter. This will not be the case for this review.
Hamlet is a show in which you can obviously see the hand of the director skillfully guiding her actors into choices that lead to strong performances and a memorable production. Felder wisely does not dodge around the language of the play, but makes the language the centerpiece. Action is guided by what is being said with the result that the play that has layers while still being faithful to the script. Shakespeare in the hands of young actors can be problematic, but Felder is able to get her actors to act with the words instead of side-stepping them.
For those of you who skipped out of English Lit class, the basic plot of Hamlet is as follows: Prince Hamlet (Rupert Spraul) comes back for his studies at Wittenberg for the funeral of his father, Hamlet Sr., the king of Denmark, and has to deal with the fact that his father’s successor Claudius (Landon Hawkins) has not only taken over his father’s throne, but has also married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Ella Eggold). The play gets underway when Hamlet meets up with the Ghost of Hamlet Sr. (Carter Lacava) who tells his son that Claudius was his murderer and that Hamlet should seek revenge by killing Claudius.
For a play of this scope, a strong Hamlet is a necessity. Felder chose one of the strongest actors in the CCM Acting program—Rupert Spraul. Spraul plays Hamlet in a way that straddles the world of a boy-man who still has one foot in Wittenberg University where he was studying while having his other foot in the Danish court and its responsibilities. Spraul knows how to joke with his comrades from Wittenberg, as well as being a smart aleck when dealing with pompous courtiers like Polonius (Isaac Hickox-Young).
Spraul was able to capture Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (i.e., his “feigned” madness—the feigned part being in question) in a wonderful goofy way that hinted at the underlying problems Hamlet is facing by being in both worlds. Within the seven soliloquies Hamlet speaks are places where Sprawl is wonderfully able to explore the madness Hamlet faces at being put into an impossible situation.
Matched against the wild protestations of Hamlet is the smooth talking Claudius, played skillfully by Landon Hawkins. Melding political flattery with daunting ambition, Hawkins is able to match Hamlet’s craziness with his own deftly politic behavior. A beautiful example of this comes when Claudius has to confront Laertes (Nicholas Heffelfinger), who points a gun at Claudius demanding revenge for the death of his father Polonius. Hawkins smoothes Heffelfinger’s ruffled feathers with dulcet words and a demeanor of a natural politician. This could have been a blow-away scene, but becomes a master class in the art of delicate negotiations with a skilled actor who understands the subtext of the situation.
One of the delights of this production is the way that, when pressed by serious circumstances, the rest of the cast also adopts an antic disposition which echoes Hamlet’s own madness. One such example comes with closet scene with Hamlet and Queen Gertrude. Queen Gertrude (Ella Eggold), who has played her role rather reservedly during the first part of the play, echoes Hamlet’s madness during this scene by being just as agitated as Hamlet while Hamlet explains to her the problems of her marrying Claudius. Eggold does a first rate job at breaking down her reserved demeanor to discussing this situation.
This production also paid close attention to even the small roles. Felder was deftly able to create an interesting story arc for Rosenscrantz (Josh Reiter) and Guildenstern (Matt Fox) through costuming and props. The pair initially enter the play wearing their college wear; however, over the course of the play, we see them becoming increasingly corrupted by Claudius’ court, eventually dressing like courtiers, drinking Scotch (or Bourbon) and smoking cigars, the same spirits and smokes that Claudius favors.
As for set and lighting design, Scenic Designer Logan Greenwell created a sparse set that seems too big for the actors, a deliberate choice to emphasize the vast scale for the events which unfold. Greenwell also effectively used draperies at the end of the first half of Hamlet, when the hanging drapes suddenly fell down after the play within the play to highlight the start of the destruction of the Danish court that happens after intermission.
Similarly, Lighting Designer Oliver Tidwell Littleton does an outstanding job with the first appearance of Hamlet Sr.’s Ghost. The Ghost initially appears entirely as lighting on the stage floor, effectively showing the otherworldly nature of the spirit which brings terrible news to Hamlet.
In closing, I was delighted by the work that director Susan Felder did to take her talented cast and produce work that was both moving and faithful to the source material. This was one of the first outings for Felder as a director and I am personally looking forward to her next directorial outing. She is on the list of theater people not to miss anything she does on stage.
This production was only on during the weekend of September 27 to October 1, 2017—a downside to having strong college production which is only a few performances long.
However, CCM has literally hundreds of other performances and productions of both theatrical and musical work. To learn more about CCM and CCM Acting, visit their website at http://ccm.uc.edu.