HAMLET Closes this Weekend at USC's Drayton Hall Theatre

HAMLET Closes this Weekend at USC's Drayton Hall Theatre

Theatre South Carolina will conclude its 2013-14 season with a production of Shakespeare's haunting tale of revenge and madness, Hamlet, April 18-26 at Drayton Hall Theatre.

Director Robert Richmond is giving the emotionally turbulent tale, considered among history's greatest dramas, a modern twist by setting the action in an insane asylum (named Elsinore) whose inmates embody the play's iconic characters. The Bard's revered language stays the same, however, as does the tragic story. The King of Denmark has died, and his brother, Claudius, has assumed the throne. The former ruler does not rest, however, and appears in ghostly form to his son, Prince Hamlet, to reveal that he was killed by Claudius' hand. Consumed with grief, Hamlet determines to avenge his father's murder, with devastating consequences for his family and the kingdom.

Richmond says his idea to set the play in an asylum came from both the text and a desire to help make the story relevant to the audience.

"We wanted to find a concept that would serve the complexity of this great play, and yet remain alive in a vibrant and relevant way to us today," he explains. "This is a play that looks at the definition of madness. Hamlet uses the ruse of insanity as a way to further his cause for revenge, so the entire action of the play makes the audience question exactly what insanity is. And, today, 413 years after it was written, we are only just beginning to understand the complexity of mental health, and how as a society we should be treating those with mental health issues."

The director says that the asylum setting should, above all, serve to bring clarity to the many profound issues Shakespeare's script raises, as well as how the power of theatre can help us to understand them. "In this play, we are constantly made aware that the stage is just a place upon which the artifice of acting is acknowledged and questioned," Richmond says. "And that's true of Hamlet, who uses the provocative power of theatre to help prove his uncle's guilt. There's a sense in this play that theatre is very important, not just to the central character, but to us in talking about and philosophizing about the ideas of insanity, death and the afterlife."

In this production, Richmond also gives increased focus to the character of Ophelia, whose descent into madness is caused by Hamlet's vengeful actions. "We've tried to make her journey more connected and relatable to the audience," says the director. "I think that Shakespeare kind of cut her out of the loop a little bit and let her sort of disappear, but we've expanded some of her moments so the audience can really get a chance to understand her psychological unraveling."

The production will utilize the talents of several professional guest artists, among them actor Richard Sheridan Willis, who will perform the role of the corrupt King Claudius. Willis has been acting professionally since he was a child; his first professional role was in 1972 in the musical Tom Brown's Schooldays, produced in London's West End in 1972. From there, he began a successful career as a child actor on UK television. He transitioned into doing primarily stage work after completing training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, appearing on stages across UK, Canada and the US.

Willis has a long history of collaboration with Richmond. The two actually helmed a small theatre company together in England 25 years ago, and, after Willis moved to the US, worked together with the Aquila Theatre Company (for which Richmond was Associate Artistic Director). The two have collaborated most recently at Washington, DC's Folger Theatre on critically acclaimed productions of Henry V and Twelfth Night. Willis received a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his role as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Other guest artists include professional sound designer Britt Sandusky, who is creating a soundscape that Richmond describes as "full of high-tension moments of classic films like Psycho," and Casey Kaleba, a highly regarded fight choreographer with credits at theatres across the US, including The Folger and Round House Theatre, for which he is Resident Fight Director.

Theatre SC Artistic Director Jim Hunter is bringing to life the disturbed, derelict feel of the asylum setting. Hunter, who maintains a thriving professional career in scenic and lighting design, is taking on both of those disciplines for this production. Costumes which are at once regal and institutional are being designed by third-year MFA Costume Design student April Andrew.

Cast in the production are second-year MFA Acting students James Costello (in the title role), Melissa Reed, Trey Hobbs, Laurie Roberts, Cory Lipman, Kate Dzvonik, Leeanna Goldstein Rubin and Josiah Laubenstein. Undergraduate actors include John Floyd, Grayson Garrick, Freddie Powers, Liam MacDougall, Jason Fernandes, Jon Whit McClinton, Rebecca Shrom and Kristina Montgomery.

Richmond says the end result of this impressive combination of talents is a Hamlet that will inspire and entertain, whose true star is still Shakespeare's timeless text.

"You can do Hamlet in ruffles and codpieces, and in the right place, at the right time, it's exactly the right thing to do. But both for our city and, certainly, the university audience, our goal is to make a production that they feel is absolutely relatable, and which they've never seen before."

Show times for Hamlet are 8pm Wednesdays-Fridays and 7pm on Saturdays. There is an additional half-price late night performance on the final Saturday, April 26. There will not be a performance on Sunday, April 20 because of the Easter holiday. Tickets for the production are $12 for students, $16 for USC faculty/staff, military personnel and seniors 60+, and $18 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30pm-5:30pm, beginning Friday, April 11. Longstreet Theatre is located at 1300 Greene St.

For more information about Hamlet or the theatre program at the University of South Carolina, contact Kevin Bush by phone at (803) 777-9353 or via email at bushk@mailbox.sc.edu.

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