An entertaining and ambitious production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was staged by the George Mason High School drama department last weekend that included an array of creative features.
Above all, the musical score accompanying the play by Mason senior Tyler Waters and its execution was unique and stunning. Waters, on a snare drum and sometimes a melodica, was accompanied by Nathan Frost on flute and Nate Cooper on guitar, and occasionally Austin Gogal on trumpet, to provide soft mood music reflecting the action on the stage while poised on the fringes and even wandering in and out of the scenes like minstrels. Even for the most seasoned “Hamlet” lover, it was exceptional.
Then there was the acting of the student playing Hamlet, Ryan Ogden, a talented senior appearing in his first Mason production. He was the total package, and Shawn Northrip, drama instructor and director, had to know he had the requisite talent in his leading man before even attempting a play as daunting as “Hamlet.”
For high school students to attempt “Hamlet” is risky, in itself, because of the intensity of the drama. Usually if high schools do Shakespeare, they keep it to the lighter stuff like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” because they can draw laughs with slapstick scenes.
Not “Hamlet,” which must run the gamut of so many prominent and legendary film and stage productions. So, to say that Mason students “pulled it off nicely” is no mean thing, because they did.
Director Northrip’s production was shortened to hold it to two hours, which meant that a number of longer soliloquies were cut, six in all, including the most famous one, “To be or not to be…,” not an uncommon move for productions that want the focus on moving the story forward, action, and holding the attention of a young audience.
In keeping with other efforts, the “To be or not to be…” soliloquy by Hamlet was substituted with Hamlet’s musing, “What a noble piece of work is man,” moved from a different location in the play.
It’s often overlooked how eloquent that speech is, lifted almost word for word to animate a song from the popular late 1960s anti-Vietnam war musical, Hair:
“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel. In apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!”
While Hamlet praises our species, he then says, “And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me…”
Still, this does not rise to the level of the “To be or not to be…” soliloquy for depicting Hamlet’s crushing potentially-suicidal and eventually fatal ambivalence when challenged with avenging his father’s death.
But carried on the shoulders of Ogden, Waters and his fellow minstrels, and some creative staging compliments of technical director John Ballou, the play was indeed “the thing” last weekend.
There are so many memorable one-liners from “Hamlet” that it is astonishing how much of our contemporary discourse draws readily from them. Why, I declare, “The lady doth protests too much!” at least a couple times a month, myself! The “play within the play” flummoxing Hamlet’s uncle (Alexa Warren) and mother (Grace Housman), the death of Ophelia (Honora Overby), and gravediggers’ (Alec Reusch and Peter Carr) scene with, “Ah, Yorik, I knew him well,” the opening scene of Hamlet’s father’s otherworldly appearance (Joseph Warren), Polonius (Gus Constance) intoning, “To thine own self be true,” and more, were all presented by the Mason players as worthy of Shakespeare.
That included some breathtaking sword fighting scenes at the end, with Ogden’s Hamlet fencing it out with the talented junior Paul Sanders, a leading man in waiting who played Laertes.
Of course, all those in the play’s Danish court forget that they are facing an imminent invasion from Fortenbras (Justin Valentino), prince of Norway, who shows up with no resistance at the end because everybody’s already dead.
The fight and choreography scenes directed by students Annie Parnell and Daria Butler were impressive, while Alissa Forbes held it all together as the stage manager, and the costumes were well designed by Jessica Kemp.