Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: Ashdown, White Lead Compelling HAMLET at Nashville Shakespeare Festival

Review: Ashdown, White Lead Compelling HAMLET at Nashville Shakespeare Festival

Wonderfully complex - and somehow unexpected and altogether authentic - performances from Sam Ashdown as Hamlet and Cheryl White as his mother Gertrude are enough reason to experience Nashville Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet (now onstage at Belmont University's Troutt Theatre through Sunday, followed by January 31-February 3 performances at Middle Tennessee State University's Tucker Theatre). But add to their stellar turns, an ensemble comprised of some of the best actors ever to set foot on a local stage, under the self-assured direction of the esteemed Denice Hicks (the company's artistic director), and it practically becomes a requirement for any theater lover within the sound of my voice.

Dark and brooding, at times, which is prescribed by the very story crafted by Shakespeare at the turn of the 17th century, Hicks' interpretation of the classic tragedy has its fair share of lighter moments which allow audiences of all stripes to be engaged in the tale. Performed with commitment and resolute focus by Hicks' extraordinary assemblage of actors, Hamlet is made all the more compelling with the addition of an original musical score composed by Natalie Bell and Jack Kingsley which lends a sense of import and dramatic resonance to the onstage proceedings.

Review: Ashdown, White Lead Compelling HAMLET at Nashville Shakespeare Festival
Sam Ashdown and Cheryl White

In his starmaking Nashville Shakespeare Festival debut, Ashdown creates a portrait of the prince of Denmark who is mercurial and appealing, adding layers of intrigue and charm to the already compelling character. While Ashdown bounds onto the stage at one moment, perhaps at the next he creeps in silently - all the while making the most of his exceptional presence to ensure every eye is riveted to him.

Ashdown's chemistry with his fellow players is palpable: he's the petulant son to his mother, Gertrude (played with an elegant and haughty regal grace by Cheryl White, who crafts a performance that renders her accessible and refreshingly authentic), the vengeful nephew to his uncle Claudius (Roger Csaki is understated yet dastardly as the usurper to the throne and bedchamber of Hamlet's late, lamented father) and the flirtatious, if somewhat diffident, suitor to the beautiful Ophelia (MTSU alumna Chelsea Bell is mesmerizing in the role).

Director Hicks' approach to the material results in a production that is both visually stunning (thanks to the creative team of artists which includes set and projection designer Sam Lowry, costume designer Jessica Mueller, lighting designer Anne Willingham) and intellectually stimulating. Mueller's contemporary costumes ensure that Hamlet and his cohorts look the very picture of hipster chic, while White, clad in an array of purple, lavender and violet-hued gowns, is every inch the royal trendsetter. Lowry's imaginative scenic design provides the company with a terrific backdrop for the play's tragic events to occur, while Willingham's eye-popping lighting adds intrigue and atmosphere to the production.

Review: Ashdown, White Lead Compelling HAMLET at Nashville Shakespeare Festival
Lauren Berst, Melinda Paul and Sam Ashdown

Hicks' inventive staging for Hamlet ensures that the play's action moves along at a cinematic clip, with the tale unfolding at a sprightly pace that commands your attention.

As Polonius, Ethan Jones exudes paternal power and influence in the role of Ophelia's father, while Audrey Tchoukoua's fiery Laertes acquits himself admirably during his swordfight with Ashdown's Hamlet, thanks in part to David Wilkerson's superb fight choreography that manages to like the real thing while making certain no actors were injured in the making of Hamlet.

Melinda Paul is impressive as Horatio in her first NSF appearance, with the scene-stealing antics of Andy Kanies and Santiago Sosa (as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) providing memorable moments. Stage veteran Brian Webb Russell delivers yet another exemplary performance as the ghost of King Hamlet, as the first player and as a gravedigger. Lauren Berst's Marcellus is convincing, while she displays her ample versatility as the second player and the second gravedigger. Shawn Knight remains eminently watchable in a trio of role, including Bernardo, the third player and Osric.

Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Denice Hicks. Presented by Nashville Shakespeare Festival at Troutt Theatre, Belmont University, Nashville (through January 28) and Tucker Theatre, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro (January 31-February 3). For details, go to www.NashvilleShakes.org. Running time: 2.5 hours, with one 15-minute intermission

Review: Ashdown, White Lead Compelling HAMLET at Nashville Shakespeare Festival
Ethan Jones and Chelsea Bell

About the production Denice Hicks' intimate production of Hamlet promises to take audiences on a journey into the minds and hearts of the royal family of Denmark in its darkest time. Prince Hamlet is torn between two unbearable situations: either living with his father's murderer or committing murder himself. The show runs January 4-28 at Belmont's Troutt Theater in Nashville and then tours to MTSU's Tucker Theatre in Murfreesboro from January 31- February 3, 2018.

Making his Nashville theatre debut in the title role is Sam Ashdown, who is described as "a magnetic up-and-coming film and stage actor who boasts an impressive resume," having performed with companies across the country. Another stand-out among the cast is Cheryl White (Gertrude), a Los Angeles transplant who has over 60 TV shows under her belt, including Major Crimes and Resurrection, who has garnered critical acclaim for her work with Nashville Repertory Theatre in Sense and Sensibility and Rapture, Blister, Burn. Other cast members include Melinda Paul (Horatio), Chelsea Bell (Ophelia), Roger Csaki (Claudius), Ethan Jones (Polonius), Audrey Tchoukoua (Laertes), Brian Russell (Ghost/Gravedigger 1), Shawn Knight (Bernardo/Osric), Lauren Berst (Marcellus/Gravedigger 2), Andy Kanies (Rosencrantz), and Santiago Sosa (Guildenstern).

Review: Ashdown, White Lead Compelling HAMLET at Nashville Shakespeare Festival
Audrey Tchoukoua and Roger Csaki

Enhancing the story and creating the emotional atmosphere for the play will be an original score composed and played live by Natalie Bell and Jack Kingsley. Emerging artist Sam Lowry is designing the set and projections that will take the audience into each location in Elsinore, from graveyard to castle battlements to the great hall. Costume designer Jessica Mueller will be dressing the court in timeless elegance using a royal jewel tone palette that will contrast with Hamlet's black attire. Lights will be designed by Anne Willingham and fights choreographed by David Wilkerson.

Review: Ashdown, White Lead Compelling HAMLET at Nashville Shakespeare Festival
Sam Ashdown and Chelsea Bell

Performances of Hamlet will be at Belmont's Troutt Theater through January 28, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. At MTSU's Tucker Theatre (615 Champion Way, Murfreesboro) performances are January 31-February 3, with curtain at 7:30 p.m. each night. Tickets and VIP Royal Packages are available at www.nashvilleshakes.org.

All of NSF's programming is supported in part by Metro Nashville Arts Commission and the Tennessee Arts Commission. Hamlet is supported in part by Shakespeare in American Communities, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. The Nashville Shakespeare Festival is one of 40 professional theater companies selected to participate in bringing the finest productions of Shakespeare to middle and high school students in communities across the United States.

Photos by Rick Malkin

Regional Awards


From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


Review: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences TalkingReview: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences Talking
September 24, 2022

Nothing engages the theaterati in Nashville and the surrounding provinces as the production of an eagerly anticipated new play no one’s done before in these parts, but about which we’ve read glowing reviews. The very promise of something new to energize the cultural zeitgeist – particularly under the aegis of Nashville Story Garden (a creative collective whose work always generates major buzz); something new and unseen from across the pond which will provide a showcase for the remarkable talents of some of the region’s most respected actors – is virtually guaranteed to be a “must-see” for a theater-going public more accustomed to titles with which they are already quite often overly familiar.

LeLand Gantt Brings RHAPSODY IN BLACK to TPAC This Weekend for Three PerformancesLeLand Gantt Brings RHAPSODY IN BLACK to TPAC This Weekend for Three Performances
September 23, 2022

As with most intelligent and clever actors struggling to find paying work during difficult times, LeLand Gantt readily admits that he was inspired to create Rhapsody in Black, which has been described as “a powerful personal narrative on racism, identity, and self-image” to provide some work for himself, allowing him to “stay in town to do more tv and film.” Now, however, as acclaim for his one-man show continues to grow, he’s finding himself “out of town” – he's based in New York – to give theater-goers all over the country a chance to see his the result of his creativity on his personal journey to transcene racism in America.

Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25
September 21, 2022

Thanks to the rousing performances of director Micah-Shane Brewer’s talented company who have brought the show to vivid life for Nashville audiences, Rent provides a noteworthy opening to the company’s 38th season. Performed with commitment and sharp focus by a cast of young performers, this revival of Rent proves the show’s timelessness, the score’s resonance and the story’s relevance well into the 21st century.

Review: World Premiere of New DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Adaptation at Nashville Children's TheatreReview: World Premiere of New DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Adaptation at Nashville Children's Theatre
September 21, 2022

Wendy Kesselman’s new adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank – which is based upon the acclaimed 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and is an update of her 1997 script which has been widely produced since – is given a superb world premiere production by Nashville Children’s Theatre, which adds luster to the original work and makes it more accessible to contemporary audiences in director Ernie Nolan’s new iteration onstage through October 2.

Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'
August 15, 2022

The production of The Color Purple, now onstage at the Roxy, is without doubt the most emphatically, beautifully and electrifyingly sung musical I’ve seen at the historic theatre on the corner of First and Franklin in downtown Clarksville over the past three decades. Directed with confidence by Broadway veteran/Belmont University alumnus/Austin Peay State University professor Deonte Warren, with the spirited choreography of Ebone Amos and one of the finest, most talented casts ever to grace the stage, The Color Purple clearly ranks as one of the best shows in the company’s 39-season history (number 40 gets under way next month).