The guitar strings at midnight

Death-metal music amid a quiet coup shapes a "Hamlet" on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor stage


ASHLAND – Every production of Hamlet that theater fans see is strengthened by the one before it. Or maybe it’s complicated by the previous one – or is it just affected? Even non-Shakespeare fans or non-Hamlet addicts know many of the play’s words in snatches, in pieces of lines that we all say, not needing the origin story of “to sleep, perchance to dream” or “sweets to the sweet.”

Add in the past few decades of contemporary theater and digital narratives: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I Hate Hamlet, Fortinbras, that “more ketchup!” scene from Grease II, The Lion King, the first seven episodes of the (deservedly legendary) Canadian show Slings and Arrows, not to mention a zombie Hamlet or two and the many movies of the play itself, and you’ve got cultural freight that looms around any major English-language production.

(Spoiler alert: Hamlet has a relatively high body count, which I’ll be discussing in the review, along with a few other plot points. If Hamlet’s plot is something you don’t want to know before you see the show, please wait until after you see it to read this.)

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) greets his friends Rosenkrantz (Dylan Paul) and Guildenstern (Cedric Lamar). Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) greets his friends Rosenkrantz (Dylan Paul) and Guildenstern (Cedric Lamar). Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

At this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet, there’s an added challenge, common to summer Shakespeare festivals everywhere: Creating a meaningful, tight Hamlet in the airy beauty of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Hamlet is an intimate court play, a two-family tragedy that has an impact on an entire region. Director Lisa Peterson and sound designer/co-composer Paul James Prendergast deal with these questions, and the specific design options of the space, by employing a guitarist and musical collaborator to set what this year’s Hamlet, Danforth Comins, called “an aural soundscape” for the play.


Skiing the mountain of Hamlet

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Danforth Comins talks about the Elizabethan Theatre, playing his third Danish prince, and this production’s aural soundscape


ASHLAND – If you’ve been to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at all in the past decade, you’ve likely seen Danforth Comins in a starring or other major role. From Orlando in As You Like It to Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, from Mark Antony in Julius Caesar to Coriolanus in, well, Coriolanus, Comins has played many a Shakespearean role – and he utterly dominated the role of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as well, coincidentally in the same year that the last Hamlet ran at the festival.

This year, Comins, playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, lays some hilarious hurt on boy-costumed Viola in Twelfth Night, where his dueling prowess is about as magnificent as hers. But he’s also playing the tortured Danish prince in an outdoor Hamlet, opening in the Elizabethan Theatre tonight: Friday, June 17. At some point among all of his fight rehearsals, scene-running and prep work for the Hamlet opening, Comins took the time for an interview with ArtsWatch. The edited Q&A is below.

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Suzi Steffen: You’ve played many a Shakespeare role, including Benedick and Coriolanus and Bertram and Orlando and Mark Anthony. And this is your third time playing Hamlet, though your first time at the OSF. What’s different or special about playing Hamlet?

Danforth Comins: Hamlet stands apart from many of the other plays in the canon because of its cultural significance and impact over the centuries, Coriolanus, great as it is, isn’t done very often, and the protagonist is not a knight in shining armor by any stretch of the imagination. Hamlet has succeeded through the centuries, maybe because it grapples with death and the afterlife. Those are topics that still elude us as society and a culture to this day; we’re fascinated.


With female Hamlet, these 10 lines change meaning

Anon It Moves casts Hamlet as a woman, and her talk of whores, chastity, and the nunnery takes a different tone

First of all, let me say that Anon It Moves‘ new production of Hamlet is grade-A small-theater Shakespeare, and if you’re a Hamlet fan at all, you’ll probably enjoy this one. Solid choices in casting, staging, and interpretation combine into a strong production with all of the ingredients a good Hamlet requires, plus a few you didn’t realize you wanted, but they work.

Crystal Ann Muñoz as Ophelia and Erica Terpening-Romeo as Hamlet. Photo:  Jack Wells

Crystal Ann Muñoz as Ophelia and Erica Terpening-Romeo as Hamlet. Photo: Jack Wells

Spirited, coordinated sword-fighting. Gauze-draped ghosts in spooky white commedia masks. An Ophelia to swoon for; an evil King who acts more like a callous boss; a gracious, petrified, powerless queen; a righteous, dashing Lysander; a sympathetic, secretarial (female) Horatio; a grave-digger who gestures with his half-eaten sandwich; a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who behave less like Hamlet’s friends than a two-person sales team—

On that note, the production is in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, featuring the same cast—

and a gong!

Now then. It must be mentioned that AIM has cast a woman in the role of Hamlet. (Hey, if ArtsWatch hadn’t told you, you’d probably notice.) As I may have mentioned recently in the Mercury, Shakespeare plays as writ tend to be the proverbial sausage party, where leading men are borne onstage by entourages of supporting men, to spar eloquently about the relative worth, purpose, nobility and mortality of man. (Sword penis fight! Go!) Obviously, this imbalance of male and female roles creates social inequality behind the curtain, and forces excellent female and feminine actors to either win a beauty contest or don a codpiece if they want to fall in step with the Bard.


Review: a swift and lean rock-star ‘Hamlet’

As Post5 starts a half-million-dollar campaign for a new home, the great Dane prevaricates quickly

Last weekend at Post5 Theatre, managing director Corinne Patel announced a capital campaign seeking a little more than a half-million dollars to enable the company to find “our forever home.” She didn’t say where that forever home might be, only that it would be closer to the homes of their core patrons who have been driving out to Northeast 82nd Avenue; no doubt the secret is in the ticket system’s zip code data.

The campaign, while not exactly big-money, is a sign of ambition from a little, out-of-the-way theater company started just a few years ago by a pair of twenty-something guys from Southern Oregon. But Orion Bradshaw (who recently ceded the managing director job to Patel and became outreach coordinator) and artistic director/resident leading man Ty Boice have shown the pluck to get their fledgling off the ground.

Ambition and pluck come together, too, in Post5’s production of Hamlet, a lean and muscular push through this masterpiece’s challenging terrain.

Gorham as Claudius, Boice as Hamlet, Hadley Boyd as Gertrude. Photo: Russell J. Young

Gorham as Claudius, Boice as Hamlet, Hadley Boyd as Gertrude. Photo: Russell J. Young

Hamlet, to put it mildly, is a complicated guy. En route to the avenging of his father’s murder, he wrestles with a host of questions — practical, ethical, spiritual, perhaps even epistemological and existential. When he’s not tipping precipitously into either indignation or despair, he’s evincing a peculiar sort of brash uncertainty.

Clad in black, his blazer collar upturned, his eyes hidden behind large sunglasses, Boice’s Hamlet takes the stage as a rock-star prince, studied in his melancholy and emotional distance. Tall, blond and handsome, he looks the part of young Danish royalty.

The tricky part of playing Hamlet is making his intensely mercurial nature feel authentic and compelling; to render it somehow emotionally coherent yet still psychologically inscrutable. Boice hits this mark better in some scenes than in others. Bamboozling Polonius, the King’s adviser, he shows deft comic timing and shifting tones in his flagrant display of (real or feigned?) madness. Jousting verbally with the nefarious King Claudius — who has killed Hamlet’s father and taken both crown and queen — or with his erstwhile school pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.

At other times, Hamlet’s famously reflective eloquence pours out of him too quickly, a pressurized flow of verbiage. Quite why the speech speeds ahead, or occasionally slows markedly, isn’t clear as a matter of attitude or thought progression. Perhaps it’s meant to suggest a racing mind, fueled by a volatile combination of youth, grief, passion, confusion and fear. In any case, Boice does make Hamlet convincing as a character who could and should be a man of action, but whose thinking gets in the way.

As much as a Hamlet rides on its Hamlet, such a complex central character needs strong figures to play against. Jeff Gorham’s Claudius is conniving and ruthless, but never a cardboard villain; he wants what he wants, and that means he must stay his course just as much as Hamlet must his own. As Claudius is Hamlet’s foil in an ethical sense, Polonius is in a generational one, contrasting the young prince’s perceptive, questioning nature with a seasoned courtier’s dull certitude. Tobias Andersen, clipboard ever in hand, renders the old windbag as at once comically fatuous and admirably paternal; we can laugh at him, yet still feel for him.

Speaking of foils, Laertes, the son of Polonius, both is one and wields one. His father, like Hamlet’s, is slain, but unlike the prevaricating prince, he moves swiftly and furiously to action. Jake Street’s coiled, muscular intensity is just right for the role, especially in the climactic swordplay that brings all plots to a point.

What might stand out most in this production, though, is the prominence of Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal confidant. Casting a woman in the role — especially an emotionally attuned actor who also happens to be the leading man’s wife, Cassandra Boice — highlights the closeness and tenderness in the friendship as Horatio watches and even helps Hamlet along his collision course with tragedy.

Director Paul Angelo has done his part here, too. A spare scenic approach, utilizing merely a few curtains, chairs and small tables, lets the action flow, as do a few judicious trims to the text (such as clipping all the odd business at the end wherein Fortinbras, an invading Norwegian, is handed the Danish crown). Presenting the play’s most renowned scene, Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, illuminated by only an intermittently flickering lighter is a terrifically apt choice, both visually and thematically. And though he needlessly presents the actors in the “play within the play” as inept boobs, and lets Phillip J. Berns ham it up far too egregiously (as is his wont) as the flippant gravedigger, Angelo otherwise draws smart, well-measured performances from the cast.

The truest ambition, after all, is founded on steady work and small yet worthwhile achievements. This Hamlet surely counts.


Post5’s Hamlet continues through May 4. Ticket and schedule information here.

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