To be, or not to be

Adrian Theisen
Adrian Theisen (photo by Leo Gonzalez)

TWU Theatre faces challenge of Hamlet

Feb. 19, 2024 – DENTON – Rites of passages still exist.

In modern society, adulthood is bequeathed simply by turning 18 years of age rather than through transition – the testing of resolve, learning and growth. But initiations remain for those with the foresight and courage to leave the comfort zones where indulgent lethargy festers.

There's flying a plane. Then there's flying solo.

There's climbing a mountain. Then there's Everest and K2.

There's performing before a live audience. Then there's Shakespeare.

Nineteen members of the Texas Woman's University Theatre Division will challenge themselves when they take the stage at Redbud Theatre Feb. 21-25 to perform what is widely considered to be the world's greatest, most famous and most demanding play by the greatest writer of all time: William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

"It is baptism by fire, for sure," said Adrian Theisen, who has the title role. "The first time I did a musical, I was in the chorus. First time doing a play, I was standing in the back. First time doing Shakespeare. I'm playing Hamlet. But we're under the tutelage of someone who takes Shakespeare very seriously and is very well versed in it. We're all like, 'just tell us what to do. We trust you.'"

The director is TWU associate professor Steven Young, who has extensive experience playing and teaching Shakespeare.

"I try to remove the fear or the mystique of it, and it's getting to the bits and bones and blood of it that I think is essential," Young said. "I try to demystify it. Here are solid principles. So we started with, this is verse. Here's how you do it. Basic mechanics. Talk about pronunciation. Here's the arc of the story. This is what's going to happen in this scene that contributes, et cetera, to the ending of the play and why this play is what it is."

The vast majority of the cast – including some of its most experienced members – has never performed Shakespeare, due in part to these young actors losing two or three years of stage performances to the pandemic shutdown.

"I've never been in a Shakespeare play," Theisen said. "I've been trying for years. I got cast in a Shakespeare play in March of 2020 but it didn't happen. I've done classical theater, Molière and ancient Greek plays. Just not Shakespeare."

Hamlet is box office. It was turned into a film eight times in the silent era alone and at least once in every decade since 1900. It is impossible to count the stage productions, and it might be easier to list the actors who have not played Hamlet.

The inventory begins with the legends: John Gielgud, who played Hamlet more than 500 times, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Maximilian Schell, Nicol Williamson, Derek Jacobi, Richard Chamberlain and Christopher Plummer.

There's the more recent stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, David Warner, Ethan Hawke, Alan Cumming, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mel Gibson in Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film.

More recently, Hamlet was portrayed by David Tennant, better known as the 10th Doctor Who. Several women have also played the part, including Sarah Bernhardt, Angela Winkler and Charlotte Charke.

And now Adrian Theisen.

"I was telling someone a few weeks before I auditioned that Hamlet is one of those plays in the theater community where everyone has a mental list of all the Hamlets they've watched and all of the actors they've seen play Hamlet," Theisen said. "The idea of being on someone's Hamlet list is terrifying because I don't know where I'm going to land on there. But that's kind of the reality of it. Everybody has thoughts about the show.

"It's incredibly intimidating," he added. "It's a lot to do, and everyone is going to have to be on top of it the whole time. Even the people who have one or two lines. You're still coming on and off stage. There's a lot of fight choreography. There's a lot of moving pieces. It's episodic, so you're shifting back and forth between all these different places, and all of these different things are happening, and you've got to make it all make sense. So nobody really has a terribly easy job. It is intimidating for everyone."

That's because everyone knows something about Hamlet, and most of the audience will have preconceived notions of the play, its troubled prince and how those great soliloquys should be delivered.

"I've been fortunate that I got to play him when I was a younger man, and to get to do the role is a mouthful," Young said. "Generally, I'm not afraid of roles, and I was fine rehearsing it. Opening night of my first production, I had a full-blown panic attack. 'Oh, my God, I'm playing Hamlet.' I calmed down, it was fine."

Hamlet is also one of the most complicated, conflicted characters in fiction, melancholy and frequently indecisive.

"He can be a really mean guy," Theisen said. "He's in a tough situation. Sometimes you really feel for him. I have to make him interesting and try to find what makes sense and ground the character and really let the audience understand, bring them into it. This is who I am. This is a situation that I am in, and just be honest about what's happening. Of course, my director has done Hamlet a million times, and so he's been very helpful about the meaning of the different sentences because there are a lot of different interpretations. We've been doing a lot of tablework to nail down exactly what is being said, what is being done, what the characters are physically doing in each scene and how that impacts how they behave and what they say and how they say it, so that when the audience is watching it, they're actually watching a story and they're not just listening to you say poetry for two and a half hours."

Steven Young
TWU associate professor and Hamlet director Steven Young (photo by Leo Gonzalez)

Young is also trying to impart the lessons he learned when playing the role years ago, lessons he picked up from the renowned actors that came before.

"Lawrence Olivier wrote a book called On Acting," Young said. "The first time I played Hamlet, I got hold of that book. He said the key to playing Hamlet was when you're decisive, run 100 miles an hour in one direction decisively. And then when you're indecisive, backtrack and run 100 miles an hour the opposite way. An actor can play that and can physicalize that. They can vocalize that. That made it simplistic to me, rather than trying to take every theory about this nonexistent character into consideration, which you try anyway. You want to make yourself as knowledgeable as you can, but get it down to something that I could play and understand, and the audience makes up the rest."

One thing Thiesen is anticipating is breaking the fourth wall – that imaginary barrier between actor and audience. It's been pierced on stage for centuries and exploited more and more in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Deadpool and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

"We are talking directly to the audience and incorporating them into the show, which is always a different experience because a lot of people don't expect the actor to just look them dead in the eye," Theisen said. "They're like, 'Whoa, I didn't know you could do that. You can see us?' I love getting to break the fourth wall because it messes with people. I got to do that a little bit in the musical we did in the spring, but not to the extent that we're all going to be doing it in this one, because when you have a soliloquy, you're just talking to the audience."

The tough part is overcoming the language barrier 400 years after the Bard's death. Modern actors have to communicate through English of the 1600s and unrhymed iambic pentameter, neither is often encountered unless one is reading, well, Shakespeare.

"It's a lot like music," Theisen said. "When you listen to a song, you understand that's not how people talk in real life, but you still know what the song is saying. I think it's very similar as far as artistic conventions go, and the way that you approach it is actually kind of similar as well, because you have to look at the poetry and the iambic pentameter scansion, all of that fun stuff they teach you in English class that most people don't have to deal with in their career ever. We do. You have to be very aware of your breathing. A lot of it is like singing, and I think there is something really beautiful and interesting about it. I feel like all the productions I've seen where people are doing it right, you kind of forget that it's poetry."

Jocelyn Losak, who plays Ophelia, and MK Mulligan, who plays Gertrude, displayed in rehearsal an immediate grasp of iambic pentameter.

"They have a musical theater background, and sometimes I find those performers seem to come into verse speaking quite easily," Young said. "They're used to handling rhythm and having to be conscious of it."

"I've done shows and musicals and plays," Losak said. "I was not familiar with the old English language. I always kind of stayed away from that when it comes to choosing monologues. I have my own interpretations of what's going on, and Steve has helped incorporate what I was thinking into what he was thinking. It kind of helps with the delivery of my lines."

"I'm a musical theater person, so I wanted to try something out of my comfort zone," Mulligan said. "I'm in school to be a theater teacher, so I want to be able to have the experience so that I can share it with my students."

(from left) MK Mulligan, Felix Ferris, Jocelyn Losak and Brian Vigen
(from left) MK Mulligan, Felix Ferris, Jocelyn Losak and Brian Vigen (photo by Leo Gonzalez)

There is a tendency to simply read Shakespeare, to plow through the unrhymed iambic pentameter which is rarely heard unless one is reading, well, Shakespeare. In an actor's zeal to get their lines right, emotion can suffer and dialogue flatten.

To invigorate the play, Young guides his charges through their lines to understand and display the meaning beneath.

They add energy. Young spends much of the rehearsal infusing the performance with vitality by focusing on the normal pauses and transitions of everyday speech, characters' motivations, timing intricacies and eliminating dead spots.

They add environment. In the opening scene, he urges the guards to remember that they're standing on the windswept castle battlements on a cold night, so show that.

They add movement. Characters reacting to the appearance of a ghost should not be rooted in place, but recoil from the wraith. During scene changes, one group of actors move off while the next move, crisscrossing and filling the stage with dynamic power.

All the while, actors intensely scrawl notes in their scripts.

"I harp on that," Young said. "You get a note, write it down, because you'll walk out of the room and it'll evaporate, or you'll be in your room rehearsing outside of here and can't remember what the note is. I say to new students, if you don't like getting notes, you're probably in the wrong profession because you're going to get them the rest of your career."

Among the most vigorous of the note takers is someone who has spent years in the Redbud complex but is a newcomer to the stage.

Misty Clark holds and MA and MBA, is the production manager and secretary of the Theatre Department and without her the place would probably collapse. But she's never been in a collegiate or community play.

"It's something she's always wanted to do," Young said. "She approached me about it and I found her a place. She's probably the hardest on herself of all the actors in the show. Misty is really a good person, a good soul, and she genuinely cares about the students, and I think they're thrilled to be on stage with her."

"I was talking to Steve and I was telling him that I always wanted to be on stage," Clark said. "I'm always behind the scenes, doing design or doing production management or something like that. And he's like, I'll put you in Hamlet. And I'm like, no. He's like, yes. And so we kind of went back and forth and logistically trying to figure it out, but he's said, I'll find you a part, and it's going to be good. I'm excited. I'm thrilled but I'm also nervous. My first show, I'm going to do Shakespeare, and it's going to be Hamlet. But you know what? That's okay. It's a good challenge."

That feeling is everywhere.

"I'm excited to be doing it," Theisen said. "Grateful for the opportunity. A lot of the people I'm working with, I've been working with for a while, and I'm also working with some new people who are really talented. So I think it'll be a good show."


Wednesday, Feb. 21-Friday, Feb. 23, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 24, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m.

Tickets for Hamlet are sold out.

Hamlet - Adrian Theisen
Ophelia - Jocelyn Losak
Claudius - Felix Ferris
Gertrude - MK Mulligan
Ghost - Jordan Benavides
VO Ghost - David Trosko
Polonius - Timathy Dorman
Laertes - Brian Vigen
Horatio - Seher Iqbal
Rosencrantz - Wesley Miller
Guildenstern - Emma Dockum
Gravedigger - Brooklyn Long
Gravedigger’s Companion - Isabelle Malone
Lucianus - Christian Hachat
First Player - Misty Clark
Marcellus and Player King - Dinvela Adam
Bernardo and Osric - Ash Vance
Fortinbras and Player Queen - Kady Hansen
Francisco, Voltemand and Hamlet Understudy - Bern Petersen

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Page last updated 3:15 PM, February 22, 2024