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Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s brilliant 'Hamlet' is remarkably relevant

Shawn Pfautsch as Hamlet mocks Alan Ball as Polonius in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet.
Shawn Pfautsch as Hamlet mocks Alan Ball as Polonius in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet.
Courtesy of Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet


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.