Friday, September 23, 2011

Hamlet at the Maryland Renaissance Festival

Revel Grove is an English village set amidst 25 acres of beautiful woods.   As you wander about the village you might encounter a madrigal choir serenading you with a tune written by King Henry VIII.   Above you an acrobat contorts perilously from silks and rings to the applause from the audience below.   A crowd claps and sings along to rousing piratical tunes at the White Hart Tavern.  Johnny Fox demonstrates the art of sword swallowing at the Royal Stage.   And from a replica of an outdoor Elizabethan theater comes these familiar lines, “Speake the Speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you trippingly on the Tongue: But if you mouth it, as many of your Players do, I had live the Town-Cryer spoke my lines: . .”

Welcome to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Located in Crownsville, Maryland just outside the state capitol of Annapolis, the Maryland Renaissance Festival is one of the most acclaimed and best attended renaissance festivals in the United States.  The entertainment choices range from bawdy tavern music to children’s theater, high wire balancing to full-contact jousting.  Quality professional theater is also an important part of the experience.   While the theatrical offerings range from the aforementioned children’s theater to original scripts highlighting the storyline for the royal court of King Henry VIII, perhaps the most unique experience one can attend is a performance of a classical play.  For decades, the professional acting company, under the auspices of Artistic Director, Carolyn Spedden, has performed plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Garrick and Rostand. While these works are adapted for time constraints, usually shortened to ninety minutes or less, the caliber of the acting and the direction is on par with that in the nearby metropolis’ of Baltimore and Washington DC.

For the 35th anniversary of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, the professional acting company is presenting William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, under the direction of John Sadowsky and starring Jack Powers. Why Hamlet?  “Why not Hamlet?” declares director John Sadowsky. “ We haven’t done it before.  It is one of the most popular plays in the canon.  It is such a beautifully constructed story, and one of my favorites.”

However, in order to produce Hamlet the play had to be reduced to two 50-minute acts. “John Sadowsky explained the challenge in cutting Hamlet. “Trimming the longest play to fit in time less than his  (Shakespeare’s) shortest was indeed a challenge.  First and foremost, I wanted to tell the basic story of Hamlet’s conflicts and revenge.  Some decisions were quite straightforward – we will stick to what is going on in Denmark.   And so much of the recapitulations of the story throughout the play were removed.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to touch the well-known soliloquies or famous lines any more than was absolutely essential. “  

Jack Powers, who has a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Muhlenberg College and numerous classical and musical theater credits to his resume welcomed the challenge of playing Shakespeare’s most famous character.  When asked if anything had been cut from the script that he wished could be restored, Mr. Powers responded, “Not really.  Most of the cuts were made around the central revenge plot, so much of the introspection and philosophy are missing.  I think these elements are certainly iconic of the play, but ultimately they do not service the main action – they are intellectual side plots that, while certainly generating academic discussion, are not essential, in my opinion, for the characters.”   

 The trimming of the play has had another benefit for the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia.  “With so much of the men’s talking gone, we can see more clearly the development and growth of Gertrude and Ophelia as real human beings,” says John Sadowsky.   The relationships among the main characters also became clearer particularly with the decision to cast a young Hamlet.  “Seeing Jack’s audition caused me to modify my original thoughts about Hamlet.  I was going to go with the traditional 30-something, who just prefers to stay in and around his college until called back to Elsinore to assume the throne.  But I saw something special in Jack’s audition and decided to go with the 20-year-old Hamlet, a real college student who is genuinely pissed off at not succeeding his father and who could be goaded into action by the ghost of his father (real or imagined).  “He isn’t any more indecisive than any other 20-something and we can clearly see the vengeance plot take hold.  And Jack has plenty of youthful exuberance, charm, intelligence, and playfulness that really rounds out Hamlet and makes him a joy to watch.  Our Hamlet is sympathetic and not the indecisive whiny complainer that sometimes comes across.”

Another aspect of the play that benefited from the decision to cast a 20-something Hamlet came in the casting of Claudius and Gertrude.  John Sadowsky explains,  “I wanted a somewhat younger Claudius and Gertrude with which the audience could well understand their love story.  Both had to be complex – Claudius is not pure evil and Gertrude is not simply a spoil of Claudius’ plot.  Her love and concern for her son and her husband had to be real.  John Stange and Kelly Gray both showed the human side in their audition.” 

The reduction of the story to fit a particular time “slot” on the Globe Theater stage led to challenges in rehearsal.  John Sadowsky, who also directed the 2010 production of Don Quixote, Book II by Baltimore playwright Mike Field, drew a comparison between the two productions.  “The biggest challenge is that I didn’t have the playwright to work with this time.  In Don Quixote, we approached the rehearsal as a developmental process; the script was a work in progress and was subject to change, depending on how scenes work and what needed adjusting once we saw how it all looked in performance.  Although Hamlet is a well established and complete play, our edited version in many ways was like a developmental work and actors could find new cuts (and re-additions) at just about every rehearsal until we had it working the way I wanted.  I have directed established plays before without the time constraint (a very real one as all shows have strict schedule limits at the Renaissance Festival) so I found it both challenging and lots of fun to approach Shakespeare as if it were a new play under development.”

Performing in an outdoor venue has built-in challenges such as distracting noises and weather conditions.   However, the actors performing  in Hamlet must also compete with the sights and sounds of the entire Renaissance Festival.   The Royal Stage is right next door and the popular White Hart Tavern up the road.  Vendors hawk beef jerky and pretzels near the back of the audience.   The crowds pass through on their way to other shows.   “The performance space is both a blessing and a curse, “ says Jack Powers.  “The former, in that it keeps you from agonizing too much over subtle, minute character choices, since none of your choices will matter if you cannot project your voice and personality into the noisy throng at the Globe.  The latter, because it challenges you much more so than a conventional theatrical performance to be very mindful of how you use your voice and body to express – you have to be loud and expressive enough to command attention, yet employ enough physical economy so as to preserve your voice and body through the entire performance as well as the rest of the festival day, since almost all the Hamlet actors also have street characters.”

The Maryland Renaissance Festival’s professional actors not only have to appear in stage shows, the majority of them also appear as members of King Henry VIII’s royal court or as villagers of Revel Grove.   This adds to the vocal and physical stamina required by the actors as the performance day lasts from 10 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Labor Day Monday from late August to late October.

By far the most challenging aspect of the performance of the Maryland Renaissance Festival’s production of Hamlet comes with its hour-long intermission.   The seats at the Globe Theater stage are wooden benches and the lengthy intermission gives theater devotees a chance to stretch their legs, use the privy, and grab an ale before returning for act two.    As an actor, Jack Powers discussed his challenge in having an hour-long break in his performance.  “The fun part will be the hour-long intermission between the two acts – too short to transition back to my street character, but too long for a lunch break.  I think Hamlet will be taking a gander through Revel Grove.”   Mr. Powers has the advantage that the member of the village he plays is a Sheriff’s Deputy, part of, as he calls it, “a jovial group of swashbucklers.” As he has a familiarity with that character he finds transitioning between the swashbuckler and the vengeful Prince of Denmark fairly easy to accomplish.

With the challenges of performing classical theater in a Renaissance Festival setting comes certain realities that are not necessarily present in more traditional theater.  There is the very real possibility that an audience member might choose to view Act One on one performance day and Act Two on another performance day.   For the benefit of audience members who have missed Act One a brief recap is presented before Act Two commences.   For those audience members who decide to continue in their seats during intermission,  the entertainment schedule at the Globe Theater provides even more Hamlet, this time on the comedic side as at 2:00 p.m. Happenstance Theater presents Something Rotten, “a wordless romp through the highlights of Hamlet,” starring Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, who also portray the Player King and Queen in Hamlet.  The very popular Shakespeare’s Skum entertains the crowd at 2:30 p.m. with their hilarious Leave It To Hamlet.  It is possible to immerse oneself in all things Hamlet for three hours if one so chooses.   Yet, it is the opportunity to see quality Shakespeare, performed by a professional company of actors under the auspices of an acclaimed director that makes this production of Hamlet a triumphant achievement for the 35th anniversary of the Maryland Renaissance Festival.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by John Sadowsky and starring Jack Powers as Hamlet will be performed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival’s Globe Theatre Stage at 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through October 23, 2011.  For tickets to the Maryland Renaissance Festival and other performance information please visit

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