By William Shakespeare
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Directed by Lauren and Jason Morgan
Text coaching/Assistant Direction by Jule Nelson Duac
Stage Manager – Rachel Nicole Poole and Michael Green
Costume Design – Lauren Morgan
Set Design – Jason and Lauren Morgan with Aidan Wright
Props Artisan – Jean Jeske
Creative Engineer and Props Designer: Jennifer Stewart and Lauren Morgan
Lighting Design – Branson White
Creative Engineering – Jennifer Stewart
Fight and Intimacy direction – Jule Nelson Duac
Leroy Hood as Hamlet
Patrick Douglass as Claudius / The Ghost
Jessica Dahl Colaw as Gertrude
Jason Morgan as Polonius / Gravedigger
Marisa Duran as Ophelia
Blake Hametner as Laertes
Drew Denton as Horatio
Kurt Kelley as Rosencrantz
Will Frederick as Guildenstern
Keith J. Warren as Bernardo / Player (Lucianus) / Osric
A Solomon Abah Jr. as Francisco / Player King
Nicholas Zebrun as Marcellus / Gravedigger 2
Laura Jones as Player Queen
Servants / Attendants / Ensemble – Karen Matheny, Cory Carter, and Maggie Ewing
Reviewed Performance: 2/11/2022
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Hamlet is a tragedy! We see so much tragedy these days, I’m not sure people get worked up about it anymore. But Hamlet is probably the name people recall most when asked about tragedies. King Lear, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, and Macbeth are others we see frequently, but Hamlet stands out. Why do we care? Why would we devote 2-3 hours to seeing something that’s bound to make us feel bad? To see or not to see. That is the question.
This story centers around young Hamlet, son of Hamlet the previous King of Denmark. As the young student returns home, he finds his father is dead, his uncle running the country, and his mother is married to his uncle. There’s a love interest sub-plot with Ophelia, daughter of the King’s advisor, which occupies Hamlet’s time for a while until that ghost thing in the garden. Essentially the play is about how Hamlet responds to the “rotten state in Denmark.” So, this play is tragic from the beginning and gets much worse.
Scholarly analyses dive into the psychology of this story and its characters. It looks, however, as many shows on TV these days, even in the local news! At some level, Hamlet, which might’ve been shocking in Shakespeare’s day, is more like modern horror movies. So why do we still care?
Four hundred years ago, tragedy in theater had a purpose. It was catharsis. People saw how revered leaders behaved badly, sympathized with them, and learned from their mistakes. Shakespeare was all about “How should we act?” Today his plays are more about history, about life in ancient societies, of Shakespeare’s life and writing, and the histories of royal families that led to so much of what we believe today. To an extent, Shakespeare created the English we speak. We learn from his words – we just don’t get shocked. Today we see Shakespeare as an example of excellence in storytelling. People around the world look for this type of experience. It’s moderately rare in some places, though there are a few production companies still bringing it to life. One of those is SSG.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild “bring(s) the Master Playwright’s legacy to a new generation that is fresh and entertaining.” This company takes chances with presentations others shy away from. Their selections and production choices make the inevitable 16th century heightened language come alive in a way that Texas ears understand, with a good sense of themes in the plays they do. They simplify production and edit judiciously to cut times without affecting meanings and storylines. And they run year-round.
The Sanders Theater at Fort Worth Community Arts Center is a black box, flexible to fit any setting. SSG generally plays in period style, so we see simple, though colorfully designed, settings with characters in period costumes. Common designs often modernize the story, bring it into the current time, put it in the local context, and make it easier for modern audiences to get it. But I like what SSG does. It’s nice to see it in its originally intended context.
Led by Co-Directors Jason and Lauren Morgan, who also designed the set, the production team used a subdued color style to create the castle of Elsinore in Denmark. There were doors made by curtains, stairs, up and down, high platforms, and open acting areas on small platforms which allowed different scenes to be played by simply moving into a specific playing area. There was little set decoration other than the curtains and painted walls, a few items brought on for scenes, and a couple of moving blocks. Painted walls provided an artistic feel that added color. Jennifer Stewart, Props Designer, and Jean Jeske, Props Artisan, ensured actors had realistic-looking items for stage business. It’s hard to know these things because of collaboration on production, everything used was believable.
This set was lit by Branson White with simple instrument packages, but it was effective to light, dim, and color various mood changes in the scenes. Lauren Morgan combined with Jennifer Stewart to create a subtle sound plot, mostly pre-show. That period music set a tone for the story. I didn’t identify it, but I could’ve listened a while longer. It was nice.
One thing I always anticipate for SSG productions is ornate, accurate, period costumes. Lauren Morgan seems a master of that realm. In this production, male clothing could’ve been borrowed from a Robin Hood production, except for the animal fur linings and heavier cloaks that invoked the cold of Denmark. Colors for men and women were subdued, not ornate, but likely accurate for the day.
Assistant Director, Jule Nelson Duac, also provided text coaching and fight/intimacy direction. A regular challenge for actors reciting 400-year-old language is to make it understood. This language was easy to understand. Shakespeare is known for challenging rhyme and meter in verse and prose. It’s not marked specifically, so a director team decides how timing, spacing, and emphasis will be placed. That takes work to get everyone on the same language.
There’s a lot of implied violence in this play, and a bit of actual or intended violence, but it’s benign in terms of what we see today. But it must be handled safely while it looks as real as possible, and that’s where Duac’s fight choreography contributes reality to the story. Sword fighting is not something we grow up doing, so the fight choreography turns it into a dance that actors can play with a little bit of coaching.
Hamlet, the son, is the main focus of Hamlet, the play. The protagonist, the conveyor of the story’s moral dilemma, a distracting but important love interest, and a hero on a journey to right the wrongs of the opening tragedy, are all the goals of this character. It’s why stars are often cast for this role. Leroy Hood played Hamlet for SSG. He has a lot of text to deliver. He’s on-stage most of the show. Hamlet has to show the hero wrestling with his conscience to understand his world, to decide whether he will get his revenge or find some other heart for his enemy. The text does create this through monologues and contemplating conversations. It’s a struggle with right and wrong. Hood managed the language well, though at times I wanted more energy in delivery, as befits someone contemplating murdering his stepfather, essentially a bloody coup. That seems monumental in a man’s mind and seems to deserve more anguish than he did for this performance. But at other times, he unleashed his emotions and we saw Hamlet’s turmoil as he tried to decide if revenge was the right response to his grief.
His uncle, Claudius, was played by Patrick Douglass. He also doubled as the elder Hamlet’s ghost who initiated Hamlet’s challenge. Douglass portrayed a kingly character. His gait and mannerisms made it clear who was in charge. Again, on this night, I wanted to see someone extremely desperate, fighting to retain his position, hiding his crimes. He too had lots of text and managed it expertly with good timing. He is, of course, the anti-hero, the villain, the antagonist, but the story makes him complex beyond his evil. Douglass showed a genuine hope by Claudius for Hamlet to accept him, perhaps wanting a real son. He made Claudius look like he loved Hamlet’s mother genuinely, wanting her to be with him for the right reasons. It makes sense that as those things were slowly ripped away by Hamlet’s accusation, his anger and desperate actions would drive him mad too. I think Shakespeare actors sometimes get tied up in making the language work in daily life situations. Audiences don’t want to see ‘normal’ in Shakespeare. They want to see the unbalanced, unhinged sides of life. That’s the energy I craved.
Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother and Claudius’ new Queen. Jessica Dahl Colaw presented us with a woman who wants to protect the comfort of being a Queen. Until Hamlet confronts her, Gertrude suspects nothing about her husband, so Colaw made her wifely and supportive. But Hamlet’s odd behaviors brought out her concerns, and then fears, of a mother first seeing her child going crazy, and wondering if his accusations could be true. Colaw showed this through Gertrude’s anguished pleas to Hamlet and desperate attempt to create harmony with her husband. Eventually, as Gertrude suspects the charges may be correct, a new level of conflict arises and Colaw showed an unbalanced side of Gertrude, struggling with wrong versus comfort. We see wives defend and protect their husbands often today.
A major part of this story is the inclusion of the family of Polonius, Advisor to the King. Played by Jason Morgan, Polonius is not royalty and knows his place in the Court. His main concerns are the lives of his children, Laertes, played by Blake Hametner, and Ophelia, played by Marisa Duran. Laertes is a childhood friend of Hamlet, growing up within the same walls. In the beginning, Hametner shows the comradery and friendship which Laertes had with Hamlet, but then he goes off to discover himself. We see Morgan as the concerned father counseling Laertes on how to live in a dangerous world. That speech by Polonius is one any parent delivers at some point. Ophelia is his young, innocent daughter. She is being wooed by Hamlet and Polonius is both concerned with this loss of innocence while also being thrilled that she could one day be Queen. Morgan reveals Polonius’ dichotomy, as an advisor telling the King why Hamlet may be going crazy, while also showing how a loving father thinks of his children over each other, more national, concerns. Polonius eventually gets caught in the craziness himself.
As events unfold, this sub-plot becomes the major piece of the story when Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius. The grief of Ophelia mirrors the mental unhinging of Hamlet’s grief, and we get to see Marisa Duran play out one of those craziness scenes with great feeling, much like the Lady Macbeth bloody spot scene. We feel Ophelia’s despair. When Laertes returns to find both his father killed and his sister dead and learns it was Hamlet, the final climactic scenes are ready. Hametner gets to unhinge his own play as he takes on the force of Laertes’ revenge against Hamlet. For these actors, there are wide variations of emotional expressions to explore through physical, mental, and subtextual changes. They all committed to those moments to build the emotional stakes of this story.
Three characters convey Shakespeare’s story to its ultimate conclusion. Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend from school and his consistent supporter through the troubles. Drew Denton played this friendship from the beginning showing Horatio’s loyalty to his friend. That carried through the end when he’s the last one alive. He’s the one who tells the story to the world. In a longer version he does this in the final scene, but that was shortened here. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bit players Shakespeare created to push Claudius’ fight with Hamlet. They’re acquaintances from boarding school and Claudius thinks they’re great friends who can reason with him. Hamlet finds them tedious. Kurt Kelley and Will Frederick play these two as obedient missives, but their function is to show what happens when people join the devil in his mission. The ends are inevitably bad for them.
Finally, Shakes plays have sub-plot players and characters, fools, clowns, and such, who provide bits of humor and help with the main plots. Hamlet, the play, includes a play-within-a-play, used by Hamlet to expose Claudius. The players of a traveling troupe are what makes that work, playing the old Hamlet and Gertrude. This cast consisted of Keith J. Warren, A Solomon Abah Jr. as the Player King, Laura Jones as Player Queen, and an ensemble of actors playing numerous little parts that Shakespeare used. These players represented the Traveling Troubadours which were so popular in the Middle Ages. They played these roles committed to their craft, creating humor and respite from the chaos. They entertained us.
Shakespeare plays have tragic and comic moments regardless of whether it’s a tragedy or comedy. You may find yourself laughing during a play where everyone dies or crying in the heart of a comedy. He wrote it that way. His genius was that he created minor, unforgettable characters with complexity, and through them, we see humanity, aside from the prominent frailties of the major characters. When I see Shakespeare played, I know its quality when the production savors those comic and tragic moments as much as the big events. Those are the jewels of the Bard.
Whether you’re a seasoned Shakespeare addict or a newbie to the genre, Stolen Shakespeare Guild is a place where you can get a fix or whet your appetite. The rumors that these plays are impossible to understand are false! See with your own eyes by watching Hamlet at Fort Worth’s Sanders theater. Then turn around and see Merry Wives of Windsor, a pure comedy, running at the same time.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy Street, Fort Worth, TX. 76107
Plays through March 5
Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm
General Admission tickets are $24-26. Check site for details.
In repertory with Merry Wives of Windsor. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.stolenshakespeareguild.org or call Theatre Mania at 866-811-4111.