“This above all else: be true to yourself.”
Polonius’ words are more than mere advice to a prince in “Hamlet”. They are also a manifesto for Ascension Community Theater director Mattie Olson, his cast and crew.
“I knew we were going to do Shakespeare this season, and I said if I had to direct, I wanted to direct the Shakespeare play that I loved the most,” Olson said.
“Hamlet” opens Nov. 10 in the theater, where the stage has been laid out like an alleyway, placing audiences on either side. Still, “Hamlet” is still taller than the Alley Stadium in Olson.
“We use all the theater,” she says. “We have stairs down from the balcony and up to the stage. My husband is a master carpenter and he designed everything.”
“Hamlet” is a play for Olson and Jennifer Johnson, who plays Queen Gertrude; Kevin M. White, who plays Claudius; and Sam Bryan, who plays the prince.
These actors never performed this play, which also marks Shakespeare’s first experience for Johnson and White. Yet all of them easily auditioned for their roles.
“Queen Gertrude is a staple role for all mature actresses,” Johnson said. “We have had several centuries to study these characters. Studying them on one page is a lot different than approaching a single character.”
Johnson referred to author John Updike’s novel “Gertrude and Claudius” during the development of the queen. The book was a gift from her mother.
“She gave it to me 10 years ago, and I reread it,” Johnson says. “You know, Updike didn’t have much for the prince. He thought Hamlet was whimpering.
But Hamlet’s problem, according to Bryan, is uncertainty, which makes the character difficult to play.
“I played Stanley Kowalski and Atticus Finch, and while they’re strong characters, they’re final,” Bryan said. “You know who they are. Hamlet is looking; he’s uncertain. ‘To be or not to be’ are some of the most famous words in theater, and they define Hamlet.”
Yet Hamlet’s uncertainty is either an actor’s dream or a nightmare, creating endless possibilities.
“I find Hamlet while he is,” said Bryan. “But in doing so, I have to approach it with an open mind. It’s not just any play; it’s ‘Hamlet,’ and there’s a reason this play has been performed for hundreds of years. Mattie had a specific vision for how she wanted this piece to be, and I want to play the best “Hamlet” I can. “
Olson’s vision includes using the entire theater to tell the story and also leaves time and place ambiguous. The costumes are timeless, some reminiscent of the 19th century and others of the 21st century. The setting is not as important as the story.
Shakespeare wrote “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” between 1599 and 1602. It is his longest play and is considered to be the most powerful.
The story takes place in the Kingdom of Denmark, where Prince Hamlet takes revenge on his uncle, Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father, seized the throne and married the widowed Queen Gertrude. The ghost of King Hamlet calls the prince to this task.
White entered this story knowing that his character, Claudius, had done horrific acts in taking the throne of Denmark, but there is another element to this king.
“I want to make him likable,” White said. “I know that sounds funny. He killed his brother, but there’s that other side (politician) of him.”
White’s observations are part of what has kept Shakespeare’s works relevant through the centuries – they are studies of human nature.
“They are timeless,” says Olson. “And that’s what we do with this production. It can be anywhere, anytime. It’s timeless.”
Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.