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Strong Work, Strong Cast: UNCW’s ‘Hamlet’ will surprise audiences

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Last year UNCW’s theatre department announced an ambitious undertaking for the season: twin productions of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” The anticipation and curiosity generated by this announcement has continued to build. I have looked forward to these productions with great hope.

“Hamlet,” which opened last weekend, is a play that carries great expectations. As Dr. Grimes points out in his dramaturgical notes for the program (which, by the way, are fascinating—make sure you check them out), it is probably Shakespeare’s most famous work. Olivier, Branagh, and Gielgud leap to mind, along with the storied performances of Sarah Berhanrdt, Edwin Booth and Ian Charleson, and the images of Mel Gibson and David Tennant. It is a part that has defined careers (Berhardt, Gielgud, Olivier); it is a part that has eluded actors too numerous to list. That’s pretty heavy lifting for a young man still in college, yet universities continue to produce “Hamlet” regularly. It is particularly interesting that UNCW has undertaken this production now with the “Globe to Globe Hamlet” tour, at the mid-point by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which seeks to stage “Hamlet” in every country on earth.  At the heart of all this excitement is the question: “Who is Hamlet?”

He is the heir to the throne of Denmark, played by Luke Robbins. His father, The Late King (Kaleb Edward Edley), is talking to him from beyond the grave, and his mother, Gertrude (Ashley Burton), has married her former brother-in-law, Claudius (Phill Antonino). He’s got a family that belongs on Jerry Springer.  Add to it, he’s royalty, which means no privacy—none. So the girl he’s hung up on, or at least flirting with (with men it is so hard to tell), Ophelia (Julia Ormond) is the daughter of Polonius (Ed Wagenseller), a senior advisor in the court. Polonius just will not leave Hamlet well-enough alone. Add to it, Rosencrantz (Eddie Waters) and Guildenstern (Wilson James), Hamlet’s annoying college friends have been called upon by the king and queen to help him over this dark patch—or at least keep them informed of his movements. Just to keep things interesting, word of the kingdom’s instability has gotten out and young Fortinbras of Norway has assembled an army to invade. That’s the set-up; then typical Shakespearean tragedy ensues, complete with a blood bath at the end. (John Webster: This is what horror with a plot and characterization looks like).

A brilliant script aside, the performances of “Hamlet” are surprisingly good. Luke Robbins has his hands full with almost two solid hours of stage time, and one of the most celebrated and complicated leading male roles ever written. He steps up and turns in an interesting take on the disturbed Dane. He carried the audience on this journey with him quite convincingly, provoking laughter in unexpected places and even audible sighs of empathy.

The night I attended a high school field trip was also present. Perhaps the best compliment Robbins could get is when the group had a heated debate as to whether this Hamlet was faking his madness or not—“because crazy people will tell you they are faking when they really are crazy.” I’ve seen Robbins in multiple roles over the last few years (including in “The Comedy of Errors” this past summer) and this is by far his best work—as it should be. Director Christopher Marino has clearly worked with Robbins to go places physically, psychologically and spiritually with the prince that he probably didn’t realize he could. But the work is strong, and both men should be very proud of their performances.

This is a show that will not work without a strong cast. UNCW hired a ringer for this show: Ed Wagenseller as Polonius (appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association). It is a rare treat these days for Wagenseller to be onstage; though, he does appear pretty frequently onscreen in various TV and film roles. Part of what makes “Hamlet” endlessly interesting to stage is to see the different ways directors and performers interpret the text. Does Gertrude know the cup is poisoned? Is Hamlet really in love with Ophelia? Does he really see the ghost—or is this a convenient apparition for his plans? Polonius is a character frequently played as a wordy buffoon. Wagenseller is a father in real life and now has a character with two children onstage; hence a Polonius, who actually acts like a father first and a court advisor second. Wagenseller clearly has the most fun of anyone, yet he radiates this aura of teaching and preaching that works so very well for the character. It is a joy to watch.

Burton’s Gertrude and Antonino’s Claudius also merit special attention. These are two parts in the play that tend to get lost easily. Believing Gertude is difficult, she has made some decisions that seem hard to many people, especially for modern women to understand. But Burton takes us with her, presenting one who is skilled in court intrigue and always a survivor (well, except for at the very end—but then that fate awaits us all). What does she know and what does she believe? At different points in the evening she convinced me of various possibilities, and it was only later that I realized they didn’t add up: the sign of a master manipulator. Coupled with Antonino, one starts to think these two deserve each other. Maybe Hamlet Sr. got off easy with death instead of having to spend another 10 years living in the same castle as them.

Part of what Marino does really well with this production is capture that uncertain, unreal quality of court life: filled with lots of lies, manipulation, pomp and things that are not what they appear to be. It starts at the top and infects everything else. Marino is very clear in his guidance, even when he is creating an aura of uncertainty, that it is a choice that is cultivated.

Many of the minor characters from “The Players for the Play—Within the Play” (Bruno Rose, Ariana Tysinger, Rachel Johnson and Naomi Barbee) to the Gravedigger Clowns (Sarah Parsons and Mickey Johnson) bring memorable and believable characters to life with very little time to paint them firmly in the audience’s minds. Just to see the cast’s comfort and flexibility with the language of the text was impressive, and a credit to Marino and his colleagues. I certainly have sat through professional productions of Shakespeare with casts that were nowhere near as comfortable with the text as these young people demonstrate.

Getting a work like “Hamlet” up on its legs would be an undertaking no matter what, but to simultaneously be preparing “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” for production with the same cast can only be marveled at. “Hamlet” is arguably one of the greatest plays ever written; it is certainly one the most often quoted, referenced, parodied, and paid homage to. To explore it’s development, a university is the perfect laboratory to take it apart and then put it together again as creative and educational work. Any opportunity to see Shakespeare live onstage is worthwhile, but for a different and nuanced approach to a text that you think you know, give this production of “Hamlet” a try. There are some changes and consolidations (Dr. Grimes addresses some of this in his note), the sword fight scene is different from what many people remember and expect, and Fortibras is only spoken of – he never actually appears onstage. Still, it might surprise you with a different look at the text and strong performances from a talented group of young people.



February Feb. 26 – Mar. 1; 8 p.m. or Sun. matinees, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$12
UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building, Mainstage Theater
601 S. College Road

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