Great River Shakespeare Festival’s Hamlet

Great River Shakespeare Festival’s Hamlet

“Let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world
how these things came about. So shall you hear
of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
and in this upshot, purposes mistook.”

-Horatio, from Hamlet

These lines from the play tell you everything you need to know. But I’ll tell you more anyways.

Ok. Am I a little biased because it is my favorite play ever? Yes. But let me say this. I had to re-write this review because I saw it again. Here’s what happened. I bought tickets for good old father and I to see Hamlet, but on the opening night a friend called me. He had scored free tickets! Boom! So I went and shook my head. There was so much good, but so much simply off. It just jarred me. One of the main reasons was that Andrew Carlson played Hamlet as if he were an angsty teenage boy. To be fair, that is a good call. But Mr. Carlson is just beyond that point where he can pull off being a teenager. So it didn’t work.

Now, I am not winning any friends at the Great River Shakespeare Festival by saying that. However, I will not let my pen be sullied by sucking up. I want to tell you how it is. And that was how it was. To be fair though, my friends who scored the tickets, loved it! Maybe the fact that they were not English majors helped. But, like I said, I had to re-write this review because when I went with dad something magical happened.

It is something that I love about theater. Every time you go the show is different. As the season progresses, the actors seem to learn what works and what doesn’t. It has been true every year I’ve seen a Shakespeare play in Winona. Whole jokes that never existed in the first show emerge into major scenes to wild success by season’s end. And so, by the time I saw Hamlet again with my dad, Mr. Carlson had totally changed his role. Hamlet was not only the most believable I’ve ever seen in a live performance, but also by far the most understandable. It was incredible. I sighed with relief because I could enjoy the show without having to feel bad for dragging my dad into the mess too.

And guess what? Even dad loved it! So go! Since you are reading this, I assume you can use the internet. If not, have someone help you find or go to the box-office at WSU in the PAC before the show! Oh and check out The Merry Wives of Windsor. That one was incredible the first time! I can only imagine how much better it has gotten! Finally the company is doing a Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead that you will probably want to see.

Ok. Now that you have your tickets, here is a little sneak preview. Hamlet may be the best play ever written. Don’t argue with me, just listen. It is about prince Hamlet who is visited by his father’s ghost. He learns that his father, the former king of Denmark, was killed by Claudius, Hamlets uncle, his father’s brother. Now uncle Claudius is king. And what is worse, Claudius married Hamlets mother! (In Shakespeare’s time that was actually considered incest, which makes the play even more exciting! Wow).

To further complicate things, Hamlet is diagnosed with melancholy, which was considered to be an actually disease to the Victorians. The play unfolds as Hamlet tries to avenge his father, while his king-uncle tries to cure him since Hamlet is next in line to throne. (And who wants a crazy man as king?) There is a cat and mouse game throughout where everyone is spying on everyone, the hunters become the hunted, and Hamlet fakes madness to outwit the ever-tighter circle his uncle draws around him.

Yet, one question haunts me still. I am not sure that Hamlet is in the right. We are told that Hamlet’s father is murdered, but I am not certain it is ever verified. Suddenly it struck me that maybe Hamlet actually is insane. Maybe his uncle is really trying to help him, and that I’ve been duped into believing that I am rooting for the just avenger Hamlet, when really I am rooting against the honest parents who are trying to save a troubled young man and put a kingdom back together on the brink of civil war. It totally blew my mind, and I want to see the play again!

I’ll leave you to make that judgment call yourself, but how can I not mention the set! The Great River Shakespeare Fest has set this mind-blowing drama in “rehearsal.” That means that the actors wear modern day clothes and the set is bare bones. This not only makes the actors more honest with their acting, but also plops the story in our face. This Hamlet is from our time. His grief, confusion, and struggle with the loss of his father is our struggle. And the set reflects it perfectly. The stage is covered in a circular platform that has beams of wood running perpendicular to each other. If this didn’t signify the clashing interests of King Claudius and Hamlet enough, the third level, a square platform of wood, juts out onto the circle as if it was bursting into the spotlight and asserting its claims. Here again the wood runs at angles, further adding to the dizzying feel of impending chaos for the Danish court. Finally above it all, an open ceiling of metal bars hangs like a witness to the play and gives the feel that there is nothing to hide—that the story is told to you straight, without being dressed up and fancy–that, in short, this is raw and naked humanity.

Among the amazing performances, I have to mention Steve Hendrickson who by an unscientific and biased poll, stole the show as Polonius, the humorous, lovable enemy of Hamlet and the father of Hamlet’s love Ophelia. Sigrid Sutter plays Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover, who begins as a lovely maiden, but in the crossfire of the court and her father’s disdain for Hamlet, descends into truly chilling madness. She makes us wonder what cost is of the games we play for power. Finally, Michael Fitzpatrick as Claudius and Leslie Brott, as Hamlet’s mother, may be the most underrated roles. They just kill it in a such a good way. Thank you! Of course, I could mention everyone, and hopefully repair any damage I’ve done to the good folks of the Fest, but as dear Polonius (who is anything but brief) says in the play, “brevity is the soul of wit.” I should have stopped so long ago, but I’ve left so much unsaid! Now go see it!

Get tickets to the last two shows this weekend online at

Upcoming performances:

What: Hamlet
When: Friday, August 1st, 7:30 PM & Sunday, August 3rd, 2:00 PM (Matinee–Closing)
Where: WSU Performing Arts Center

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