Now this is what I call a debut.
Susan Felder, Assistant Professor of Acting and Movement at UC-CCM, makes her Cincinnati directing debut with the longest play in Shakespeare’s canon – HAMLET. Felder started teaching last year, but the shows had already been assigned to other faculty and so she acclimated herself to the Acting Program and the Queen City while she waited for the opportunity. She’s directed on big stages before; she’s also an actress, a playwright, and a “verse and direction coach.” But even with such an impressive resume, it must have been daunting to direct this one as her first one. I don’t know about her, but I’m ready to see the second. And third. And fourteenth.
As most of my readers know, I’m not a big fan of watching Shakespeare on stage. I often find it tedious in our modern age; while I appreciate the storytelling and his mastery of language, most of the time I don’t think actors know quite how to make the words relevant, meaningful, or understood for today’s audiences. Felder, though, magnificently guides her young cast through this powerful epic, producing the finest dramatic acting I’ve seen in a classic Shakespearean or ancient play in some time.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the Kirk’s Notes version: Hamlet, the son of the recently deceased King of Denmark, is not thrilled that his mother has remarried so quickly to his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, learns that Dad was murdered by Uncle, and Hammy is now motivated to seek revenge. Young Hamlet is interested in Ophelia, but he is pretending to descend into madness as a distraction from his vengeful plan and is unable to fulfill his romantic destiny. He hires a troupe of actors to produce a dramatization of Daddy’s death, which startles Claudius. From there, things spiral out of control with murder, family feuds, and unrequited love. It’s Dynasty-meets-Dallas in Denmark with a tragic end.
Playing “Hamlet” is CCM Acting senior Rupert Spraul. I admit complete and total bias when I write the next paragraph. And I make no apologies for it because despite my personal connection to him, what I’m about to write is 100% true.
There may be no finer young actor in Cincinnati than Rupert Spraul. I met him when he was a senior in high school and we were both cast in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Falcon Theatre. (I was Chief Bromden; Rupert was the understudy for Billy Bibbit, a part he played our last weekend of performances.) I was so taken with his talent then (and subsequent roles I saw him in) that I asked him to read for one of the main characters in my play, “Chase the Dragon,” at the first private reading. He went on to play the role in the workshop production and I was mesmerized by his immediate grasp of the character, the intentions of my words, and the full range of emotions he portrayed. He’s been impressive in other roles, like his scene-stealing bellhop in CCM’s “Her Naked Skin” and the every-man lead in “Middletown” last year as well as his star-turn in Falcon Theatre’s “Master Harold and the Boys.” But HAMLET is his most ambitious and best performance to date. He has a great look, a natural speaking style even when reciting the most complex and powerful of Shakespeare’s prose, and most of all – he’s believable in every moment of this production.
He’s not the only one impressing audiences with his work in this piece, though. There was no doubt that these actors knew precisely what they were saying, why there saying it, and how it was designed to either add texture or further the story. It takes a committed director to take time to ensure her cast isn’t just reciting lines. I can’t imagine how much table work and homework and rehearsal these students did to fully embrace the dialogue, the nuance, and yes, the comedy in the script. It completely paid off.
Landon Hawkins, for instance, is masterful as “Claudius.” The intentional way words drip out of his mouth, always with purpose, is the mark of a very intelligent young actor. I’ve always been impressed with his particular skill set but in this role he connects to the character in new ways. His on-stage wife, Ella Eggold, also impresses with her nonverbals as much when she speaks. Isaac Hickox-Young (“Lord Polonius”) exacerbates the humor in the script with some very funny moments while Nicholas Heffelfinger (“Laertes”) emotes with maturity we’ve not seen from him before. Other standouts are Josh Reiter, who does more with a single facial expression than many actors can do with entire monologues, and Matt Fox as the famed duo of “Rosencrantz” and “Guildenstern.” Kenzie Clark is heartbreaking as “Ophelia,” and Carter LaCava shows versatility as both the ghost and a snarky gravedigger. Gabriella Divincenzo is an unlikely choice to play “Horatio,” Hamlet’s best friend but she anchors the final scene with gravitas.
Perhaps the best thing about this show – apart from the acting – is the painstaking attention to detail. Felder’s on-stage transitions are seamless and thoughtful. There are subtle props that texture the story without being blatantly out-of-place. Actors move on the stage, sometimes wordlessly, just to give other characters something to do to give visual reference to Shakespeare’s language.
The ambient music and sound design by Matthew Birchmeier accentuates the psychological thriller aspects of the play and build tension throughout. The costumes by Ashley Berg are consistent with the Roaring 1920s, which is a similar choice to that of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s last production of HAMLET. It’s a smart choice; the plot and action of the show work perfectly in that decade. Logan Greenwell’s set is both elaborate and simple – and stunning. And the lighting design by Oliver Tidwell Littleton is gorgeous and effective. There was very cool special effect makeup work done, too, I assume by Meredith Keister and her team during the great sword fight sequence choreographed by Gina Mechley.
Clocking in at a long three-hours-and-four-minutes or so, CCM’s HAMLET is a bit of investment for the audience. But it’s easy to invest in a show that’s this good. To borrow from Hamlet (and the Bard) . . . “To go – or not to go. That is the question.”
For me, there is no dilemma. It’s too good to miss.
HAMLET runs through Sunday afternoon, October 1st, at UC-CCM. Tickets and more information can be found here.
FULL CAST AND CREW:
- Susan Felder, director
- Logan Greenwell, scenic designer*
- Oliver Tidwell Littleton, lighting designer*
- Matthew Birchmeier, sound designer*
- Ashley Berg, costume designer*
- Meredith Keister, hair and make-up designer
- Gina Mechley, fight choreographer
- Steven Rimke, vocal coach
- Anna Naderer, stage manager*
* CCM student
- Chandler Bates as Bernardo/Ensemble
- Jeremy Maislin as Francisco/Priest/Ensemble
- Gabriella DiVincenzo as Horatio
- Will Clark as Marcellus/Ensemble
- Carter LaCava as Ghost/Gravedigger/Ensemble
- Landon Hawkins as Claudius
- Ella Eggold as Gertrude
- Briley Oakley as Lord Voltemand/Ensemble
- Madison Pullman as Cornelius/Messenger/Ensemble
- Rupert Spraul as Hamlet
- Isaac Hickox-Young as Lord Polonius
- Nicholas Heffelfinger as Laertes
- Kenzie Clark as Ophelia
- Josh Reiter as Rosencrantz
- Matt Fox as Guildenstern
- Mafer Del Real as Player King/Ensemble
- Sarah Durham as Player Queen/Ensemble
- Abby Palen as Gravedigger/English Ambassador/Ensemble
- Jacqueline Daaleman as Osric/Ensemble
- Lauren Carter as Fortinbras/Ensemble