`The `Hamlet' of my dreams'

In preparing for Shakespeare classic, Rep Stage works to get it right


As two men clashed swords, threw elbows, rolled, ran and stabbed on the stage at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre this week, director Kasi Campbell watched with pride.

It has taken an estimated 60 hours for her leading men to learn the intricate steps of the minute-and-a-half fight scene that is the finale of Rep Stage's production of Hamlet. But, Campbell said, "If you don't have a believable sword fight, the whole three hours [of the play] kind of falls apart on you."

And Campbell is counting on a compelling story, along with pared-down costumes, subtly rock-inspired music, artistic scenery, a relatively young cast and inexpensive tickets, to attract new audiences to the classic drama, running March 24 through April 9.

"Our challenge is to keep it fresh," Campbell said. "It has a contemporary sensibility."

But not too contemporary. Shakespeare's language and historical setting remain intact and the story of Prince Hamlet, his ghostly father, his disloyal mother, his scheming uncle and his distraught girlfriend still has plenty of drama.

The play will take place on a jutting stage surrounded by dust and bones that includes a yawning grave to keep the theme of mortality front-and-center.

Karl Miller, who plays Hamlet, said one of the defining features of the production is that "this is a very tactile Hamlet. It is all about texture in the most literal and sensuous sense."

He added: "Some of the most important encounters are very physical and very close. ... There's a humanity to it that I haven't seen in a lot of productions of Hamlet."

That physicality is obvious in the final sword battle, in which fight director Paul Dennhardt, a theater professor at Illinois State University, has embraced Campbell's instructions to devolve from a civilized duel to a brutal brawl.

"The most important part is the storytelling," Dennhardt said. "It is not this move and that move, it is what's happening between these two people."

As Hamlet, Miller is taking on what Campbell calls "a mammoth role," tackling about 1,500 lines in less than three hours, including some of the most famous speeches in the English language.

"I don't think you do Hamlet unless you have the actor," Campbell said. And when she directed Miller for the first time in Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, during Rep Stage's 2003-2004 season, she knew right away "he was the Hamlet of my dreams."

More than a year of preparation followed, during which Campbell also directed Miller in Anton Checkov's The Seagull at Rep Stage.

There is a very high standard for performing the classics in the Washington area, Miller said. "I wanted the time and the resources to study."

After spending months examining the text, training his body and voice with a coach and engaging in extensive e-mail conversations with Campbell, Miller said he believes he has a handle on the part.

The emotion, language and thoughts are all there in the text, he said. "You have to achieve the ultimate receptivity for the part and let the language work on you."

The hard part is not the size of the part, Miller continued, "It's the leaps from [emotional] high to low in the space of half a page. ... To actually ride that, that is the tricky part, integrating it all."

Miller lives in Washington and has recently performed at Arena Stage there and at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. He has been nominated this year for a Helen Hayes Award as lead actor in the play columbinus at Round House Theatre in Washington

Campbell said her leading man is "an incredible talent," and while many actors wait until they are older and more experienced to tackle Hamlet, she likes the fact that Miller is 26.

"It is more interesting for a 26-year-old to come to grips with his mortality," she said.

In the past, Rep Stage, a professional theater in residence at Howard Community College, has received accolades for small productions of more obscure material. Campbell won a Helen Hayes award in 2004 for directing The Dazzle, about two brothers who horde mountains of stuff in their apartment.

But Campbell said the theater has added a few classics in the past four years - usually one each season - such as The Seagull and Arcadia, which brought in the theater's largest crowd.

And, she said, founding director Valerie Lash was eager to do a Shakespeare play when the time was right.

To coincide with its staging of Hamlet, the theater is increasing its outreach efforts, particularly to high school and some middle school students who read the play as part of their school curriculum.

Theater staff have placed a study guide on the Rep Stage Web site and have scheduled three weekday matinees for school groups.

The organization offers $12 tickets to students and, as part of its membership in the League of Washington Theatres, young people ages 17 and younger can get a free ticket with the purchase of an adult's full-price seat at selected shows.

Campbell said she hopes young people in particular will realize that a night of live theater costs about the same as a night at the movies.

She said: "we are hoping they will get the word out about the quality here."

sandy.alexander@baltsun .com

Rep Stage will perform "Hamlet" on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, March 24 through April 9, at Smith Theatre on the Howard Community College campus in Columbia. Information: www.howardcc. edu/repstage or call the box office at 410-772-4900.

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