PROVO — Last year I was scheduled to see a Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s play and it was raining. Because their shows are performed outside, I wimped out and decided not to attend. It turned out that the rain stopped, the show went on, and I missed out. Boy, did I ever miss out. Had I gone then I would have found out much sooner that this group of players is amazing, and I would have never missed another one of their plays.
UTBA was invited to a private performance of Hamlet that was being put on for the supporters of Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s recent Kickstarter campaign. Because it was a secret and they may use the venue again, I will only say that when I heard where it was going to be I was somewhat intrigued and a little skeptical. I will say this, though: it was by a trail, so before dark, bikers sped by behind the audience’s seats. I was surprised none of them stopped. I am a confirmed compulsive exerciser, but seeing and hearing Shakespeare performed? I’d have parked the bike and at least asked what was going on.
As my son and I got to the venue, music was lilting from the far side of the stage. There were a wide variety of instruments, including acoustic guitar, djembe (African drum), mandolin, an accordion, a cowbell, a triangle, some other kind of drum, a pipe, a cajon (a box you sit on and you hit it), and more. Music was an integral part of the performances, and I understand this is how Shakespeare’s shows were originally staged. Music provided a solemn, muted background that deepened Hamlet’s sad message. The music, combined with the portable stage, which is built on top of barrels, established an organic, authentic Shakespearean—and generally English—country fair atmosphere. There was a juggling contest, accompanied by music, of course, that got the audience very invested in the production. Audience members were encouraged to cheer and jeer, and this type of interactivity both in the pre-show and during the play. In fact, during one of Hamlet’s many famous soliloquys, Hamlet said, “To be…” and extended his hand to the audience. We obediently answered: “Or not to be.” “That,” Hamlet proclaims, finger raised, “is the question.” I felt as well as almost heard a collective sigh. We were all part of something big. Who hasn’t heard that line at least once?
Hamlet’s actors are very physical, in their own roles and with each other. These players move, cling to one another (such as when Horatio is bidding his dear friend goodbye), jump, dance, and more. Their energy was infectious and to be honest, I was so giddy and pumped up watching all this movement, it took me a long time to calm down after I got home. I was slightly fearful that the Grassroots Shakespeare Company would somehow make Hamlet funny—a comedy that ends with the stage strewn with dead bodies. And indeed, in the parts where Hamlet is funny, albeit usually ironically so, it is. But the drama, the sadness, and the madness were all there. Trevor Robertson, who plays Hamlet, is phenomenal. He had an intensity that caused him to really hurl himself all over the rather small stage. He vibrated his madness, despair, anger, and fear. He positively shook with emotion. His facial expressions compounded his visceral portrayal. I’ve never been more moved watching a Hamlet, whom I heretofore thought was kind of whiny and pathetic. Robertson’s took him to a level of intense agony that was almost too painful to watch. But I was spellbound.
Davey Morrison Dillard was a semi-wise, altogether wordily annoying and finally tragic Polonius in Hamlet. Indeed, I admired all the actors in this company. The character development was so finely-tuned, and the actors are so comfortable with not only their lines, but the blocking and interaction with others that they are entirely believable.
On the other hand, Ophelia (Aubrey Bench) and Gertrude (Heather Murdock), Hamlet’s sweetheart and his mother, were hard to hear and I missed most of their lines. So my only other criticism is about sound. Another problem that the performance had was that the set decoration was some pages (perhaps mimicking pages from an original Folio) are strung like banners and when the wind got a hold of them, the flapping got a little loud and distracting. The background music aldo got a little too loud once or twice, too.
In accordance with the foundational philosophy of the Grassroots Shakespeare Company, these actors don’t have a director as they rehearse these plays, and they have about three rehearsals before they perform. Yet, the staging of the show was inventive and brilliant. The scene where Laertes (Cameron Bench) carried his dead sister Ophelia out gave me a lump in my throat, and I thought it was very powerful. But this is merely one example of the brilliance that we witnessed throughout the production. If I wrote all that impressed me, you’d be reading until tomorrow.
The costumes were a mixture of funky and modern, with some characters wearing jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts. A few costumes, such as the crown and rather dusty looking robe worn by Claudius (Daniel Whiting) were more authentic garb. The most outlandish costumes were worn by Hamlet when he began to pretend to be mad—a cut up white t-shirt over black clothing, with some sort of kneepads. He also wore a red sparkly jester’s hat that clearly signaled to the audience that Hamlet was mad.
In closing, I will say this: I am now a total Grassroots Shakespeare Company fan. I am planning my schedule around when I can come see their other shows during the summer as they tour northern Utah. You and your friends should join me in the future and see at least one production from Grassroots Theater Company this summer. You’ll be glad you did. They’re free, though the GSC would love a donation of $3.00 per person. That’s cheaper than a movie, folks.
[utab_info_box]The Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet plays at various public locations throughout Davis, Salt Lake, and Utah counties through June 30. Shows are free but there is a $3 suggested donation. For show times, locations, and other information, visit the GSC’s facebook event page. For additional information about the Grassroots Shakespeare Company, visit www.grassrootsshakespeare.com.[/box]