Saturday, February 10, 2018

Seeing "Hamlet" Live at the American Shakespeare Center

This afternoon, three friends and I gathered in Staunton, VA, to see Hamlet performed live at the Blackfriars Playhouse, home to the American Shakespeare Center.  Two of us had been there before, and two of us were basically dragged there by me because that's the sort of nice friend I am.  Happily, it was a brilliant production, and we all went away happy.  Or, in my case, in a state of blissful ecstasy that I'm still tingling with like six hours after the production ended.

We gave the actors three curtain calls.  That's how good this was.

I have so, so, sooooooo many things I want to say.  And I'm pretty sure I'm not going to get to all of them.  First off, the Blackfriars Playhouse is amazing in and of itself.  It's a recreation of the Blackfriars Theater in London where Shakespeare's plays were performed when he was writing them.  It's a small, intimate theater with gorgeous decor, wonderful acoustics (no microphones for the actors!), and a fun, playful vibe even for serious productions like Hamlet.  It looks like this:

That's a view from above the stage, looking toward the audience.  You can see that it does not have zillions of seats, very cozy.  We were in kind of the middle of those seats on the main floor straight out from the stage this afternoon, which let us lock eyes with the actors during their speeches (I may or may not have made one actor smile when they caught me mouthing the lines along with them -- they might have been planning to smile there anyway, I don't know) and feel like we were really just there in the moment.  So cool.

Anyway, they did the play in full-on Elizabethan costuming, which was cool.  I've seen way more productions with non-Elizabethan costumes than with, so it was kind of a treat for me to see them actually wearing doublets and hose and so on.  They had minimal props, just a chair or table now and then when needed, plus lots of nice, shiny daggers and swords, some flowers, a couple skulls, etc.  And the staging was lively, energetic, and sometimes surprising in a good way, like having the Ghost make his final appearance from a trapdoor high above the stage!  That was especially cool.


The acting was overall superb.  I'm getting spoiled with amazing productions right now, what with the 2011 film I just reviewed and now this.  Josh Innerst as Hamlet was especially wonderful, just the right mix of inscrutable and relate-able, passionate and cerebral, skeptical and credulous.  Also, he did this very tiny little thing that pleased me to no end:  throughout the bulk of the play, he had very messy hair and an unkempt goatee, like this:


But when he returns from his pirate escapade, his hair was combed, his mustache ends were twisted up, and he was altogether kempt and combed and calm.  It was such a little touch, but so exactly the perfect way to physically show the alteration in the character from wild and whirling and uncertain to a man at peace with his fate and his role and his path.  I LOVED that.

I also loved Benjamin Reed as Laertes.  I am, as you may know, horrifyingly picky about how Laertes gets portrayed.  Or, actually, I get horrified by the way he's usually played either as a jerk or as a non-entity.  But if you play Laertes well, he becomes a truly powerful foil for Hamlet and a way for us to understand him from another angle.  And this Laertes, oh my word, you couldn't help but love him.  Devoted to his sister, obedient to his father... and a friend to Hamlet.  My very most favorite moment in the entire production was at the very beginning when Laertes gets permission from Claudius to go back to France, and he says goodbye to the court... and gives Hamlet a farewell manly-man hug.  It's brief, most people probably didn't even see it, but I wanted to just run up on stage and thank everyone in the production for that one tiny moment.


I am not even exaggerating when I say that this Laertes is my favorite since Liev Schreiber's in the 2000 film.  The only one I've seen come close.  I would go see this production again, if I could, just for him, even if every other actor and actress was out sick and the roles were filled with understudies.

Then there was Shunte Lofton as Ophelia.  For much of the play, I was just okay with her.  I thought she excelled in her scenes with Polonius and Laertes, but wasn't as fond of her in the nunnery bit.  But then her mad scene, when she handed out flowers, actually moved me to tears.  I can't remember the last time I was moved to tears by that scene.  Maybe never.  So she really wowed me there.


Let's see, the rest of the cast.  Allie Babich as Horatio was quite good, very sympathetic and intelligent.  It was neat seeing a woman in the role.  Christopher Seiler was okay as Claudius, maybe a bit too smiling, but I was okay with him.  Jessika Williams was likewise okay as Gertrude -- kind of frosty, but sympathetic.  Tim Sailer was very fun as Polonius, not so much pompous as too loquacious.  I didn't even realize until I read my program when I got home that he doubled as Fortinbras, so he did a great job being very different for both roles.

For the purposes of my Hamlet Comparisons page (which I'm going to revamp soon, just FYI), I would say:

Hamlet: A+
Horatio: A-
Laertes: A+
Ophelia: A
Claudius: B+
Gertrude: B+
Polonius: B+
Overall Production: A

Here's something superduper fun that I just love:  they're doing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead right now too, and everyone in this production is also playing THE SAME ROLES IN THAT!!!  I kind of just really want to go see RAGAD now, though I'm not sure I can make it happen, but that whole idea is just too perfect for words.

Okay, it's midnight, and although I will probably remember a zillion things to say as soon as I post this and go to bed... I've said lots.  I adored this production.  I will be seeing more plays at the ASC, you can count on that.

(I didn't have permission to use any of the photos in this post, I just stole them from the internet.  If the ASC lawyers come after me, the first thing I'll do is... take down the pictures.  What were you thinking?)


  1. Wow, how awesome! That sounds fabulous. What an awesome theater! Wish I could have been there for that. How cool that Laertes was so great. And the fact that they're doing RAGAD with the same cast? That is brilliant. That would be so cool to get to see as well, sort of round things out and spend more time with these Hamlet characters.

    1. DKoren, I just kept wishing you were there! Next time you come down, we'll go see something there if they're doing anything we're interested in.

      And yeah, I was just soooooooooooo excited by the idea of doing RAGAD at the same time, with the same cast. I have to look into how long that's running and see if I can't manage to run back up there to see that because, wow, brilliant idea. And I enjoyed this cast so much.

  2. Sounds like you had super fun! You're really becoming a Hamlet afficionado! Glad you and the girls had so much fun.

  3. Knowing your love of this play, I'm glad to see your overall happiness with this particular production! I knew there was a loooonnnggg post brewing in your head, even without you mentioning it. ;) I was seriously impressed myself! For my very first watch, not knowing the story really at all, I'm very pleased that I saw this version. And truly, that Josh Innerst guy? AH-MAY-ZING! Just wow.

    1. Kara, yeah, I was basically writing parts of this in my head all the way home.

      So how accessible was it to you, since you didn't know the story? They talked very fast through a lot of it, and I was wondering how much people would catch if they don't have chunks of the text memorized.

      BTW, I didn't manage to mention this in the post, but this "Actor's Renaissance" season means that these plays are done without a director or other production crew. The actors do their own staging, figuring out the costumes, and so on! That makes me even more impressed.

      And yeah, Josh Innerst KILLED it.

    2. Whoa, seriously?! That REALLY impresses me more! They clearly know what they’re doing! And understand Shakespeare very, very well. (Which shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, considering this IS a Shakespeare company. :)

      I figure I probably missed out on some things, not knowing the script. But I learned watching Much Ado that I’d need to pay really close attention! Which is the main reason I wanted to know the basic storyline beforehand. It also helped tremendously that we were so close to the stage! I think I would have missed more without seeing the nuances of the actors faces. Their facial expressions were really on par! Down to the rolling of eyes or slight smiles. So I feel like I understood most of it? Although I do have to admit that I was never fully engaged emotionally. I don’t know if that’s just because I’m a newbie or what, but while I could appreciate the intensity of emotion they were conveying, to the point I didn’t doubt what they were trying to tell me, at the same time I always felt slightly detached. I don’t know, does that make sense? Maybe I’d’ve reacted differently if I understood things so well as you... Whatever the reason, it certainly didn’t take away from my enjoyment! AND my sheer awe of their levels of energy.

    3. Kara, yeah, I find that most impressive. Probably explains why so much of their staging felt very organic, dictated just by who needs to talk to whom.

      Oh man, being that close to the stage -- it was amazing. I mean, you could literally lock eyes with the actors now and then. An experience I will treasure! One of the soliloquies -- I think the one that starts "How all occasions do inform against me" when Hamlet's on his way to the ship to sail for England -- felt like it was delivered straight to me. Like twelve straight lines, eyes locked on me, just explaining what's going on in his head. I will probably never have another Hamlet experience like it. I'm not sure I've ever felt that sucked into live theater before. To the point where I was thinking I was glad I wasn't sitting up on the stage because it would have been overwhelming to be that close.

      Maybe if you hadn't been sitting next to some weirdo who was mouthing gobs of the lines along with the actors, you would have been engaged more? Lol. But yeah, probably because I didn't have to figure out what was going on, I could just slide into the story?

    4. You are not a weirdo! I actually didn't notice you that many times anyway, I was too engrossed in the story! But when I did, I was just thought it was cool that you knew so many of the lines. I think I probably would have been a little bit more like you had we sat down there during Much Ado. And I was DEFINITELY mouthing stuff during S&S!! You might be really glad you weren't beside me at that point. :D

      I do think now that I know the story better, that it would be much easier for me to get engrossed into the characters. Especially now that I've spent so much time analyzing them in my head!

    5. No, Kara, I'm a weirdo. I'm okay with that ;-)

      I don't know if any movie theaters near you will be doing this, but if you've ever wanted to see the Benedict Cumberbatch stage version of Hamlet, I just found out they are showing it in theaters again on March 8! Definitely one worth seeing, and they've never released it to DVD, so here's your chance. More info here on the Fathom Events website if you're interested.

  4. Thanks so much for dragging me there! I was looking forward to the long car ride, because I knew I'd have fun hanging out with everyone. I wasn't so sure why we had to travel 2+ hours though, instead of seeing something much closer ;) It was worth it! The theater was amazing, and the actors were excellent!

    I do sort of wish I could see it again. This was the first time seeing any production of it. Maybe (well, probably) a movie version will have to do.

    1. Erika, thanks for being willing to get dragged there! And trust me, if I get wind of Hamlet being played closer, I will totally go to that too if at all humanly possible... but that venue is just spectacular in and of itself.

      I um... would happily zip up there mid-March to see this again, maybe back-to-back with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead?

    2. Jumping in to say that I REALLY want to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead now!

    3. I'm fairly sure I'm not going to manage to go back there while it's still playing. If I don't, I'm just going to have to watch the movie version again. Been like ten years since I saw it.


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