‘Hamlet’ still hits home in 2017: Shakespeare on Main Street brings iconic show to Brandon
BRANDON — The opening of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is one of the most famous scenes in all of literature.
Two Danish watchmen, Bernardo and Marcellus, bring Horatio, a friend of Prince Hamlet, to their post to show him what they have seen the past two nights: the ghost of the deceased King Hamlet.
As the trio sit in darkness, the ghost suddenly appears. They stare at the spirit in disbelief until the dawn approaches and the king vanishes. Horatio then runs to tell young Hamlet what he has seen, and thus the play begins.
But that is not the beginning of “Hamlet 2017,” a version of the play staged by Shakespeare on Main Street (SOMS) last weekend at the Brandon Town Hall.
In this production, directed by SOMS Co-Founder Gary Meitrott, that scene is prefaced with a monologue by a young Hamlet, who is played by Evan Breault. Joined on stage by the entire cast, Hamlet delivers a humorous speech poking fun at his fellow “players.” He then pulls out his cell phone and begins to do something that is very 2017 — take selfies.
“I wanted to offset the usual beginning of the play and its seriousness,” Meitrott said. “As much as the play moves to a tragic ending, through much of the play there is wit and humor. I wanted to set in people’s minds that aspect.”
After the prologue, the two sentries take the stage, and the play, as Shakespeare wrote it, begins. Those who missed the show in Brandon are in luck: SOMS will present two more performances at the Woodstock Little Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 6 at 2 p.m.
Despite the humor Meitrott cites, for many SOMS actors it is the gravity of the work that has resonated with them the most.
“Any chance you get to be in one of the ‘biggies’ of the Western Canon of literature is just a great opportunity,” said Andrew Carlson, who plays several roles in the show and serves as president of the SOMS Board of Directors. “For people who are actually willing to listen to Shakespeare, they can take part in these questions about what it means to be human.”
This is the very question that Hamlet struggles to answer throughout the play — and why for centuries the work has served as a guide for those trying to understand their own humanity, especially in the wake of a loved one’s death. Just as Hamlet speaks with his father’s ghost to understand the world around him, today folks engage with Shakespeare’s work to understand the problems and tragedies of today.
For Breault, channeling Shakespeare’s ghost was an exhilarating experience.
“It’s very challenging, not in a way that feels over-pressuring, but it’s the kind of challenge you step up to and it makes you feel full,” said Breault, who playes Hamlet. “It’s a four-course meal of words.”
Getting up close and personal with those words, actually speaking and immersing oneself in Shakespeare’s language, is what makes the performance so rewarding, says Ken Kilb, who plays Laertes.
“In one part, there’s a lot of hard consonants in the language and using those consonants let me be loud and direct,” said Kilb. “As a quiet person, the chance to be another person, to be loud, is exhilarating and beautiful.”
For many of the actors, the literary and historic nature of “Hamlet” weighed heavily on their minds as they prepared for the performance. However, for Jonathan White, who plays Polonius, it is the humanity of the play, not its literary merit, that compels him as an actor. What’s important to him, he said, is understanding who he is as a human being and how he relates to each of the characters based on his own qualities and personality.
“(The play’s role in Western civilization) is great to know, but when you’re on the stage that’s not what you’re about,” he said. “(On stage) you’re about your relationships with the other people … and how you use them to get what you want, which is what we all do as human beings.”
Meghan Wood, who plays Ophelia, agreed that it is important for a performer to get in touch with their character on an individual, human level. But she disagreed that the literary merits of a work are not important when on the stage.
“Part of what’s personally always baffled me about Shakespeare was he wasn’t exclusively emotional or exclusively intellectual. His intellectual decisions, from the iambic pentameter to the use of consonants, were all used in order to emphasize humanity and provide subtle stage directions,” Wood said. “It very much involves an understanding of both sides of what makes great literature.”
Above all, says Gary Meitrott, one of the most important parts of a strong performance is allowing the actors and the audience to become a part of Shakespeare’s play. After all, he said, that is what makes literature great, its ability to transport us to another world.
“I say to the actors, you have to give yourself permission to be other,” he said. “I do not want life reflected on the stage as it is off stage.”
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