HAMLET

7/15/14-8/17/14

Baughman Theatre - Jackson MI
 

"This is as good a production of “Hamlet” as we’ve seen, and we’ve seen a few."

- Detroit Examiner

 

"As for all the psychology that’s central to “Hamlet,” Blixt and company handle it well. They walk the fine line between Shakespeare and Freud that most modern companies are all too eager to cross. " - Detroit Free Press

 

"Blixt's "Hamlet" works because of all the strong choices that are made. This isn't a carbon copy of someone else's "Hamlet." This is a "Hamlet" mutually created by director, technical artists and actors to create something different that still stays true to the soul of the original work." - Encore Michigan

 

"When we go to the theater what we want to see is something unexpected, and Blixt surprises us with how she tells this ghost story, mystery, and political thriller filled with madness, revenge, and murders. On opening-night there was much laughter counterpointed by moments of absolute silence when the audience held its collective breath." - MLIve

Winner

Best Shakespeare Production

BroadwayWorld, 2014

Nominee

Best "of the Bard"

Wilde Awards, 2014*

* The Wilde Awards

  Michigan Professional Theatre Awards

  Best Production encompasses Best Director

 

Scroll for full reviews

HAMLET

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

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Michigan Shakespeare Festival presents a 'Hamlet' you will not soon forget - Ann Holt, MLive

 

Kicking off the 20th season of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival is an intelligent, fresh and beautifully staged modern-dress version of "Hamlet," one of the world's greatest plays and Shakespeare's best-known tragedy.

 

When we go to the theater what we want to see is something unexpected, and director Janice L. Blixt, also the Artistic Director of the festival, surprises us with how she tells this ghost story, mystery and political thriller filled with madness, revenge, and murders.

 

On opening-night performance on Saturday, July 19, there was much laughter counterpointed by moments of absolute silence when the audience held its collective breath.

 

As the play begins we learn that Hamlet's beloved father, the King of Denmark has died, and his mother has quickly married, Claudius, his uncle, making him king (the marriage was incestuous by Elizabethan standards).

 

Betrayed by his mother and having lost his chance to rule the kingdom, Hamlet is now trapped in the castle, with his purpose in life gone.

 

In his melancholy state, Hamlet encounters the ghost of the dead king who reveals he was murdered by his own brother and encourages Hamlet to take revenge by killing Claudius. Desperately trying to uncover the truth, Hamlet wraps himself in a cloak of madness distrustful of those around him.

 

This is where Shawn Pfautsch's Hamlet comes alive – dominating and controlling the stage with his dark humor, emotional range, and physicality. He toys with those around him like a cat with a mouse. You do not dare take your eyes off him for a moment for fear of missing something important. This is a Hamlet you will not soon forget.

 

Alan Ball turns in a memorable, warm, and witty performance as Polonius, an adviser to the King. Although considered doddering, he is a loving father to both Ophelia and Laertes (Ball also plays the Gravedigger in another amusing scene).

 

Ophelia, portrayed by Lydia Hiller (a Winona Ryder look-alike), is the obedient daughter, whose life is defined by men. When Hamlet, who once pledged his love, cruelly scorns her and sends her away, she becomes another victim – death being her only option to escape a world where she no longer has a place.

David Turrentine is a strong Claudius, the great man in public, but unprincipled in his private actions.

As Gertrude, Janet Haley creates a shallow woman more interested in maintaining the status quo, revealing little emotionally until the scene where Hamlet shares his plans.

 

Edmund Alyn Jones (Rosencrantz) and Topher Payne (Guildenstern) play entertaining but bumbling school friends of Hamlet's who ultimately betray him by spying for Claudius.

 

Hamlet's only friend, who remains true to him to the end, is the steadfast Horatio (Brandon St. Clair Saunders).

 

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival continues to attract and keep a core of talented performers and design staff, which contributes to the constant refining of the ensemble work as evidenced by this outstanding production.

 

Inventive Set Designer Jeromy Hopgood makes a dramatic statement with soaring Gothic arches and Lighting Designer Diane Fairchild illuminates them with shafts of light on a stage filled with mist. The production is underscored with original atmospheric music and sound composed by Kate Hopgood.

 

Kathryn Wagner provides costumes in a palette of somber colors with touches of red for the royal family and flashes of jewel tones in the women's elegant modern-day dresses.

 

The exciting final duel that leaves the stage strewn with dead bodies is choreographed by Fight Director David Blixt.

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival finds the wit and humor in 'Hamlet' - John Monaghan, The Detroit Free Press 

 

To care or not to care?

 

That is the question behind any production of “Hamlet,” which finds the famed Prince of Denmark avenging the death of his father while going mad in the process. You have to be with him every step of the way, even at his ugliest.

 

I didn’t care much at first about Shawn Pfautsch’s Hamlet, featured in a new production at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson. I found him to be a whiny prince, even as the ghost of his father confirmed what Hamlet has suspected all along: that his uncle killed his father in order to ascend the throne.

 

Fortunately, Pfautsch seemed to quickly grow comfortable in the role and gave Saturday’s opening-night audience a well-crafted performance that brought out all the tragedy and the often-ignored humor of Shakespeare’s signature work. The festival production, directed by Janice Blixt, relies on strong acting and sparse set decoration. Though Blixt sets the action in an ancient castle, the cast’s attire is at least 20th-Century modern. This is a royal family that’s apparently doomed to make the same mistakes over many centuries.

 

Hamlet’s plan to force his Uncle Claudius (David Turrentine) into a confession involves a small band of actors who will stage a murder drama whose story reflects the real murder Claudius committed. During this scene, the designers have some fun with color, outfitting the freewheeling actors in the only hues that break from the blacks and grays that define the show’s overall look.

 

As for all the psychology that’s central to “Hamlet,” Blixt and company handle it well. They walk the fine line between Shakespeare and Freud that most modern companies are all too eager to cross. Obviously upset with his Uncle Claudius, Hamlet saves some of his scorn for his mother, Gertrude (Janet Haley), who married Claudius quickly after the king’s death. The showdown scene between Hamlet and Gertrude is one of the play’s most charged and subtly reveals the complex feelings the son has for his mother.

 

Other familiar scenes come off equally well. The visit by Hamlet’s dead father is effectively rendered with silhouettes and fog effects. When Pfaustch launches into his iconic “To be or not to be?” speech, its meaning is enhanced by hand gestures. And if you’re in the audience for this production and pondering when to come aboard Team Hamlet, you’ll likely be won over when the prince loses his shoes, which is around the time he begins to lose his marbles. Blixt’s idea to have Hamlet go barefoot while wearing a fancy tailored suit is clever and effective.

 

The supporting roles are well-played by actors who have come to the festival by various routes. Some, like Pfautsch, have Chicago experience. Others, like Topher Alan Payne and Edmund Alyn Jones, who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are graduates of Wayne State University’s Hilberry program. Some of Hamlet’s best lines are reserved for these two characters, former school chums who have been enlisted to spy on the moody prince. It’s fun to watch him talk rings around them.

 

As always, the success of the show depends on the strength of the lead, and Pfautsch ultimately doesn’t disappoint. He proves that tragedy is not defined solely by the body count. It’s also eccentricity and wit that keep audiences coming back to watch Shakespeare’s great Dane fall once more.

 

 

MSF Offers New Take on Hamlet - Holly Cogan, Brooklyn Exponent special writer

 

It is a daunting task for a small town newspaper reporter to review what could be the world's most famous play in the English language performed by professional and well-schooled actors. 

 

We have seen the Actors' Equity Association members in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival company of players in other years and they never fail to impress. Excellence draws excellence and other other members of the company this summer rise to a higher level just by being in their presence. 

 

Plays are performed in a repertory fashion with three shows offered at various times from now through Aug. 17. "Hamlet" began July 17 with the schedule ending with that play on Aug. 17. The opening of "The Importance Of Being Earnest" will be Saturday, July 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Potter Center on the campus of Jackson College. "Cymbeline" follows Sunday, July 27, at 2 p.m. All performances are in the Baughman Theatre. 

 

This version of "Hamlet" is not the full play. Three hours is long enough for a performance, director Janice L. Blixt decided. That meant making cuts, and focusing on Hamlet himself. 

 

"...by the time he arrives home after being told of his father's death, his entire life's purpose (is) stolen from him," reasons Blixt in deciding to tell his story. The familiar lines are there, but "brevity is the soul of wit" and she managed to capture both. 

 

This may be a more humorous "Hamlet" than you remember. The audience on preview night appreciated places where William Shakespeare wrote in comedic scenes and where Shawn Pfautsch in the title role played them to the hilt. His feigned madness, designed to irritate his elders who had not shown proper respect for his murdered father, was boyishly gleeful at times and soberly quiet at others. He spoke robotically at one point and clapped with his feet in another, doing whatever he could think of to bring disquiet to the usurper of his father's throne - his uncle Claudius - and his mother, Gertrude. The other adult in the situation was the father of Ophelia, Hamlet's love, who advised his daughter to keep her distance from Hamlet. He tried very hard to be patient as he carried out the king's orders but was irritated as any current-day father would be. Alan Ball, one of the equity actors, could have been a little stronger in expressing those emotions and in reacting to Hamlet's outrageous behavior, but he is, after all, a nice guy and a diplomat. He is also a heck of a gravedigger. 

 

David Turrentine in the role of Claudius was blustery, obnoxious, greedy, ambitious and wore all those other unworthy characteristics we associate with him. He also carried off the unsuccessful attempt at asking God's forgiveness with sincerity, acknowledging that his prayers kept bouncing back. 

 

As always, Janet Haley owned the stage when (she) was on it. She is a striking woman, and meant for major roles and not bit parts. 

 

The other female lead, Lydia Hiller, playing Ophelia, caught our eye this time, though. In actions and expressions she embodied a latent rebellion even when obeying her brother and father. She did what she had to do, albeit not willingly, and her slip into madness was impressive. 

 

Brandon St. Clair Saunders got a plum role in Horatio, the only true friend of Hamlet. He brought a steadiness to the play which can be a bit frenetic. 

 

Sam Hubbard as Laertes died well, but then, in true Shakespearian fashion, they all died well. 

 

'Hamlet' opens Shakespeare Festival - Robert Delaney, The Detroit New Monitor

 

 

Director Janice L. Blixt gives us a youthful modern-dress "Hamlet" as the first play of this year's Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson.

 

Shawn Plautsch is the fresh-faced Danish prince in this fine production at the Baughman Theatre in Jackson College's Potter Center. His performance is given excellent support by David Turrentine as Claudius, Janet Haley as Gertrude, Lydia Hiller as Ophelia and Alan Ball doubling as both Polonius and the Gravedigger.

 

Besides Ball, patrons of Wayne State's Hilberry Theatre will also recognize two other Hilberry alums, Edmund Alyn Jones as Rosencrantz and Topher Payne as Guildenstern.

 

It's a good production, but I can't say it makes my list of all-time favorites. I got there a half-hour early last Saturday night in order to hear Blixt's pre-curtain "Bard talk." Blixt's combination of knowledge and insight is always a joy to hear, and I really believe the festival ought to tape them, and set up a video screen to play them in the lobby before those performances when she doesn't give them.

 

 

Strong choices dominate 'Hamlet' - Bridgette M. Redman, Encore Michigan

 

Whether they are aware of it or not, everyone knows "Hamlet." It is so much a part of our lexicon that people grow up hearing its words and phrases and memorize them even when ignorant of their origins.

It is because it is so well known and so enmeshed in our culture that it becomes critical in this play – even more so than in most others – that actors and directors make strong choices. These choices differentiate each production and keep it from being a bunch of famous quotes strung together.

 

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 20th anniversary production of "Hamlet" is bold in its choices. Artistic director Janice Blixt moves the famous Dane and his family's court into the modern era, and each actor has clear intentions and motivations in this most famous of Shakespearean tragedies. It is in the modern setting where Hamlet must determine how to avenge his father's death, a death he learns was murder committed by his uncle who then married his mother.

 

It all starts and ends with the Dane himself, the title character who is played by Shawn Pfautsch. Pfautsch is an emotional prince, ever caught up in one mood or the next, whether it is sorrow, anger, feigned madness or grief. There are few moments in which Pfautsch lets Hamlet have quiet or simpleness. He is a man caught up in complex emotions, and he doesn't hesitate to express them.

 

Where he is most effective is in his delivery of those all-too familiar lines. He makes each of the speeches his own, and he makes them seem comfortable tripping off the tongue of a man from this century. They are all internally consistent, part of the personality that Pfautsch creates for Hamlet.

 

But neither is the play simply a collection of speeches. This production of Hamlet is filled with characters who are intense in what they want and how they go about getting it. Even those characters who are caught up in events beyond their ability to affect are still committed to the attempt.

 

David Turrentine's Claudius and Janet Haley's Gertrude are a subdued couple, first as royals who are consolidating power and then as guilty spouses whose feelings toward the Danish prince split them in purpose. While together they are the controlled monarchs of a realm not long out of mourning, apart they show passion that arises out of fear – fear of being found out and fear for a son's life.

 

Alan Ball's choice for Polonius is an unusual one, as he is not the typical comic relief or clown of the play. Rather, he is a councilor who is earnest in his desire to serve a stable state. He loves his children and looks after their welfare in a way that does not seem at all absurd or over-bearing. His advice sounds wise coming from Ball's lips, and he brings the king and queen intelligence that is true if not the cause of Hamlet's madness like he thinks.

 

Edmund Alyn Jones as Rosencrantz and Topher Payne as Guildenstern are a doomed twosome who are nonetheless authentic in their desire to do service to both their monarchs and their school friend. That they cannot ultimately serve both is no fault of their own nor due to a lack of desire. With Pfautsch, the three establish well that they were once beloved friends, and we see that fall apart as the Wittenburg duo are forced to choose their loyalties.

 

Brandon St. Clair Saunders, whose voice resonates as Horatio, creates no such conflict in his character's loyalties. Horatio is first and foremost companion to Hamlet, and the two are trusted, devoted friends. Their closing scene is heartbreaking, and Saunders keenly shows that while Horatio may survive the play's bloody ending, he does not escape the tragedy.

 

Sam Hubbard is the impulsive Laertes, whose disposition is almost always a mirror opposite to Hamlet's. Like Hamlet, he has a father to avenge, a father who was murdered and for whom he wants justice. Even though he plots with Claudius, Laertes remains likeable, in part because Hubbard makes clear that his choices are motivated by honor, and that his actions are coming from the same place as the play's hero, Hamlet.

 

The Ophelia in this production is a serious, deep one who keenly feels the bonds that prevent her from making her own choices, whether it be with Hamlet, her father or the king and queen of Denmark. Lydia Hiller creates an Ophelia who is boxed in, for she has as much affection for her father as she does for Hamlet, and is torn between the two of them. The scenes between Pfautsch and Hiller are cold, as if they know they are predestined to be separated. There is little of affection and much of challenge and suppressed passion.

 

Helping to create each moment in this tragedy is Kate Hopgood's original music composition and sound design. It plays as a complex sound track that underlines each shift in mood and important choice.

The final fight scene, designed by fight director David Blixt, is a complex and intense one. Laertes and Hamlet are two well-matched fighters, and they are fierce and quick in their battle.

 

Jeromy Hopgood's set consists of clean, strong columns, with Diane Fairchild's design throwing lights from behind the column and into the fog that permeates the set.

 

With a constant attention to stage pictures, Janice Blixt offers a visually stunning "Hamlet" that is heavy in contrasts. Blixt's "Hamlet" works because of all the strong choices that are made. This isn't a carbon copy of someone else's "Hamlet." This is a "Hamlet" mutually created by director, technical artists and actors to create something different that still stays true to the soul of the original work.

 

 

A Remarkable Work of Art - Ron Baumanis, Mostly Musical Theatre

 

I just got home from this afternoon’s performance of Hamlet, in repertoire at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. While I don’t usually review non-musicals, I have to give two shout outs…

 

First, this is an excellent production under the guidance and direction of MSF Artistic Director Janice Blixt. Set in modern era clothing, it resounds as powerfully as it most likely did 420 years ago. Her direction is swift, perfectly focused, and edits are judicial and appropriate. Its a tight, gorgeous production, with beautiful lighting and scenic design, and a small, expertly crafted acting ensemble.

 

Second, Chicago-area actor Shawn Pfautsch turns in an amazing performance as the Dane…at first reserved and almost lifeless, he quickly takes on the role with an energy and performance force that you have to see. By Act Two, he’s barefoot and galavanting around the stage faking his mental deterioration; while instantly being able to transform to composed, plotting, and revengeful. By Act V, he’s a force to behold. Combine his natural abilities with Blixt’s sure directorial hand, and this is a fine, fine Hamlet indeed.

I’m looking forward to the Festival’s other two offerings this summer — The Importance of Being Earnest, and the little-performed Cymbeline — but Hamlet is clearly this season’s centerpiece — and its a remarkable work of art.

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s brilliant 'Hamlet' is remarkably relevant - Patty Nolan, The Examiner

 

Rating: 5 STARS

 

Today marks the official close of the 20th Anniversary of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and if the penultimate performance of “Hamlet” was any indication of the quality of the state-sanctioned enterprise, we can all be proud. The critically acclaimed festival, which for the last 10 years has appeared (indoors!) at the Potter Center in the Baughman Theatre on the campus of Jackson Community College, certainly holds its own in the world of Shakespeare-focused events.

 

This production of “Hamlet,” directed by the festival’s Artistic Director, Janice Blixt, is vibrant, passionate, at times hilarious and poignantly relevant. She immediately establishes an atmosphere in this production that becomes its own character – one embodied by purposeful sound design (Kate Hopgood), scenic (Jeromy Hopgood) and lighting (Diane Fairchild). Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, and we glimpse it lurking in the castle’s foggy battlements and hear it grumbling and gnashing its teeth in the dark and drafty halls. This production has been trimmed and tucked to fit a more conventional running time – but we doubt that anyone missed the absence of young Fortinbras, especially since Hamlet still delivers the lovely monologue (Act 4, Scene 4) to philosophically upbraid his own inaction in avenging the King’s murder.

 

The company is brilliant and the actors complement their contemporary costumes (Kathryn Wagner) with gestures and mannerisms (Guildenstern’s “mind blown” meme) that today’s audiences recognize as quickly as Elizabethans would have recognized crossed fingers as a gesture to ward off evil. Nothing is forced or cheesy. Rather, it serves to remind us that the emotions and situations Shakespeare’s characters deal with are precisely the ones we struggle with today.

 

This is as good a production of “Hamlet” as we’ve seen, and we’ve seen a few. Here are a few additonal highlights that come to mind after soaking in this rich and thoroughly enjoyable production.

 

Shawn Pfautsch kicks tail as the Prince of Denmark – eschewing the quiet, brooding, introspective approach for one that is big and vibrant – filling every inch of the theatre with a manic, terrifying energy. He is a young man caught in the Twilight Zone episode where he is the only one who sees the monster that will bring their certain destruction. He’s not mad – he’s just surrounded by people who have bought into the politically-endorsed lie.

 

David Turrentine's Claudius is convincingly played less as a king and more as a ruthless corporate tycoon who has rubbed out his brother in a power move to get the goods and the girl. Rick Eva, as the King’s Guard, Osrick, creates an imposing and ubiquitous presence that serves to remind the audience, and Hamlet himself, that he is never beyond the reach of the odious Claudius.

 

Alan Ball has all the fun in this production – he gets to play the self-important Polonius as an officious politico whose meddling has tragic results, and is then bumped off in time to come back in the comic-relief scene as the wily Gravedigger. Good stuff.

 

Two other Hilberry alumni – Edmund Alyn Jones and Topher Payne – appear as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Although King Claudius never takes time to learn which is which, the actors manage to bring specific, distinguishing characteristics to characters that, in other productions, are nothing more than literary, expositional devices.

 

The sword fight between Laertes (Sam Hubbard) and Hamlet at the end of the play – devised by Fight Director David Blixt – is perhaps the best staged duel we have ever seen. By best, we mean violent, authentic and so frightening that we closed our eyes more than once – certain that someone was going to lose a valuable appendage.

 

Our congratulations to the Michigan Shakespeare Festival company. We look forward to seeing what next summer brings and recommend checking out the festival’s website or friending them on Facebook to stay in the loop.