Hamlet (Review)

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This year’s Shakespearean installment at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne features an all-female cast that presents The Bard’s famous vengeful son in a truly refreshing manner.  Readers are probably familiar with the highly publicized footnote that men and boys were the only performers before-, during-, and shortly after Shakespearean-era theater.  Thus, what can any cast–five hundred years after Shakespeare’s death–do to breathe new life into this story of vengeance?  While this highly talented troupe of Hamlet remains true to the Elizabethan era language, the performance simultaneously serves as an appealing alternative to those familiar with the tragedy and as a progressive introduction to Shakespeare for any young audience member.  

I’ll spare you the synopsis for two clear reasons: You either know the play (probably from high school or college), or you don’t know the play.  Members from both of these camps should catch this two-week running because Shakespeare’s words and plotlines have a proclivity to offer more to an audience each and every time. This performance can be a fantastic opportunity to ease the uninitiated into the pinnacle of the classic tragedies.  For those who know the text but have yet to see it performed live, there may not be a better opportunity to have “See a Shakespearean play” struck from a bucket list.  Lastly, for those who have seen a film version, read the play, or viewed a mixed-gender live performance, please note that it is likely that this female cast will still impress and provide something different than ever before.  

Halee Bandt exhibits great range in emotion and presence as young Prince Hamlet from the opening sequence to the final critical moments.  Her masterful handling of multiple dense monologues establishes her among the elite performers to grace this historic stage.  Fort Wayne theater veteran Kate Black excels as Claudius, whose staunchy presence builds the required, obvious tension throughout each scene.  Nancy Kartholl, who recently appeared in Faith Healer as Grace, thrives as Polonius, whose protection of his daughter and whose loyalty to the king serves as a recurring battle with the title character.   Returning to the stage after a decade-long hiatus is June Rambo, whose performance of right-hand-man Horatio was among the most noteworthy of this large cast.  Additionally, newcomer Izzy Chilian proves she belongs in the theater with her impressive secondary role as the prince’s love interest Ophelia. Kira Downey, an admitted fan of Shakespeare, astounds as the Ghost.  Her passion for Shakespeare’s language is apparent and her performance arrests the audience in each of her scenes.  Finally of note, the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are executed quite well by Tala Munsterman and Marissa Steiber, respectively.  The remaining actors of this outstanding twenty-member cast all serve as worthwhile catalysts throughout the play.  

Directed by Thom Hofrichter, Hamlet might be just what American society needs in 2018.  While it may be too soon to state that the play is experiencing a coast-to-coast resurgence, the themes within it could not be more relevant.   In his director’s notes, Hofrichter suggests there may be more to the opening line “Who’s there?” than just the curiosity of a soldier who is not sure if he’s just seen the spirit of a recently deceased king.  The play has existential undertones and guides audiences to find a part of themselves in Hamlet.   The oft-quoted reflection monologue (“To be or not to be…”) potentially encapsulates a second level of self-identity and self-worth when performed by a female.  

Not to be overlooked with this performance is the costume design of Jeanette Walsh.  Through an atypical, erratic pattern, each character’s clothes work well to suggest a profound sense of individuality–a theme that has always been apparent in this play but is even more so in this production.  IPFW theater professor John O’Connell lends his deep resumé as fight director.  Additionally, Rae Surface returns as the technical director and appears as two separate characters.   

This sturdy ensemble cast carries with it the shadows of generations of women who, it stands to reason, were unsung heroes on some level in society.  This direct challenge of theater traditions, especially with the expectations that accompany any of Shakespeare’s titles, sends a clear message that those traditions must stay in the past.  It further serves as a vivid reminder of what had to happen over the past several centuries for the public to have access to Shakespeare’s work performed by a cast of females who range from middle-school aged young ladies to seasoned stage veteran performers.  

 

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(2018) Review of Red – Performed at the First Presbyterian Theater (Ft. Wayne, IN)

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Local Acting Mainstays Want ‘To Make You Think’

The new year at First Presbyterian Theater begins with a riveting performance of John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning play Red.  This two-week stint at the venue features a duo of remarkable actors: Thom Hofrichter and Kevin Torwelle.  Hofrichter also co-directs this play with Chance Parker.  

Readers will no doubt recall the first of these two performers.  Co-starring as prolific American artist Mark Rothko, Hofrichter has been directing and organizing the FPT for twenty-one years.  Torwelle, a nine-year acting veteran, plays Rothko’s fictional young assistant Ken as Rothko prepares his largest and priciest commission for The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the late 1950s.  

Audience members may not immediately recognize the name Mark Rothko unless they have been involved in the study of American painting.  This review is not going to be a lesson on Rothko, but a slight understanding of his work and legacy can be useful artillery for those who attend this outstanding drama.  Regardless of your familiarity with Rothko, his contemporaries, or art history in general, the teacher-student dynamic swarms the stage from beginning to end.  

In under ninety minutes and with no intermission, Hofrichter and Torwelle successfully challenge a bevy of themes and aspects of human nature.  It’s irrelevant that the assistant’s character of Ken is fictitious because he is clearly representative of Rothko’s friends, fans, critics, and his subconscious.   Rothko, at this point in his life, had already enjoyed success and was one of the few artists who could live comfortably solely on the income his artistic work provided.  Thus, he has evolved from a “starving artist” to a “hardened artist” who is contemplating what future generations will consider to be his legacy.  Hofrichter’s performance surges throughout the play in this mentality.  Among the early remarks he makes to his new assistant is that art must have “tragedy in every brushstroke,” which embodies the artist and the performance.  Hofrichter exhibits Rothko as a pained and uncomfortable human being who has no interest in being anyone’s father, teacher, mentor, or friend.  

Torwelle counters as Rothko’s fictional foil.  His character’s mental growth and confidence blossom with each scene, leading up to the culminating discourse of their final moment together.  

Through five scenes, the play covers two years of time between artist and assistant.  The on-stage action is woven into the drama beautifully, but the powerful, inspiring language is what sets the trajectory for these monumental final few minutes.  

“What do you see?” Rothko asks Ken at the outset.  It becomes suddenly obvious that he’s not just talking to the young, enthusiastic artist who cannot believe he’s being hired to work with the living legend.  The question, it turns out, is for the audience to consider as well.  Rothko’s character further drops poignant takes such as “You cannot be an artist until you’re civilized!” and “That’s business, not art!” Torwelle’s Ken, however, emerges from the verbal assaults received early on and eventually matures into Rothko’s sparring partner about life, art, and philosophy.  

Later, in a visibly active moment between the two, they discuss the power of color and the connotations we build for the entire spectrum.  The assistant’s torrid past eventually unfolds and brings new depth to their relationship.  These elements are no doubt why the play won a Tony; however, the directors’ notes point out that some viewers “see this play as an impenetrable wall of philosophy.”  Thus, we return to the central question—What do you see?–but now with an emphasis not on the first word, but rather the third.  

Co-directing with Hofrichter is recent IPFW graduate Chance Parker.  He directed Ballad 423 and 424, and he has been a performer and stage manager in his young, promising career.  In the spring, he will direct the final show of the 2017-2018 season at FPT.  

Jeanette Walsh returns as costume designer.  In a play about artists, Walsh pieces together a perfect visual rendition of each character’s personality and mentality.  

Rae Surface and Sheila O’Rourke re the technical director and dresser/backstage crew respectively.  Austin Berger, who recently performed in last autumn’s Faith Healer is the stage manager and board operator.

One of the most tempting opportunities I had with this review was simply to write the words “Go see this play” a few hundred times.  Each of the moments spent viewing the action and dialogue between these two performers will remind anyone of the significance of being a mentor, a student, a teacher, a trainee, or anything in that realm.