Halved Hamlet, twice the fun
The Tech talks to production members of the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s Hamlet
The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble
8 p.m. Nov. 1–2,
4 p.m. Nov. 3,
8 p.m. Nov. 7–9
La Sala de Puerto Rico
Tickets at http://ensemble.mit.edu/tickets/
Last Tuesday, I sat down with the director and two leads of the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of Hamlet. The director, J. Paul Nicholas, previously worked with the Ensemble on the spring 2012 production of The Tempest. Keenan A. Sunderwirth ’14 and Mark L. Velednitsky ’14, the actors I spoke with, are no strangers to either the Ensemble or the stage — both MIT seniors have worked on eight shows in their time here, and began acting at ages 6 and 7 respectively.
If you are familiar with the play, the notion of two leads may have piqued your curiosity. Nicholas, in perhaps his most notable director’s modification, has divided the title role into two parts. He didn’t choose one actor for each act, but rather drew divisions through soliloquies, lines, even sometimes sentences. His reason for doing so is multifaceted. Nicholas noted that the externalized version of Hamlet’s internal struggles plays out humorously onstage, adding to the comedic aspect of Shakespeare’s famous “tragicomedy.” He also confessed to toying with the idea of using two actors to illuminate Hamlet’s “almost borderline multiple personality disorder,” as he described it, for a long time.
When asked to describe the difference between the “Halflets,” as the cast fondly refers to them, Sunderwirth answered first. She enthusiastically described her Hamlet as “a lot more aggressive, frustrated, and eager to take action. Mark’s ends up being more politically minded and contemplative.” Velednitsky concurred, adding, “the interesting thing is that both of us are experiencing everything that Hamlet experiences at once.” Sunderwirth and Velednitsky have begun to interact with each other much like the way their characters interact onstage. When Velednitsky forgets a line, his counterpart is certain to correct him, just as the aggressive Hamlet would any blunder of his alternative self. Come opening night, the two will wear the same attire and always be seen on stage together.
Some of Nicholas’ alterations of the play had practical motivations. At the core of everything, all the actors are MIT students with an MIT course load, and thus cannot commit to more than fifteen hours a week. This time limitation has prevented the Shakespeare Ensemble from performing Hamlet for over twenty years, but splitting the role makes the production doable within the MIT constraints. Furthermore, the current Ensemble is more female than male, so Nicholas had to do some “gender bender. We have girls playing girls; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are women. We also have girls playing men.” Sunderwirth, who portrays the aggressive side of Halflet is a prominent example. Although the director had not anticipated any correlation between gender and personality within the Hamlet character, “when it became clear that one of the Hamlets would be played by a woman, [he] knew that the passive Hamlet wouldn’t be female.”
J. Paul Nicholas fleshes out all of Shakespeare’s characters in full, as he firmly believes that a play cannot be done justice unless every smaller role is given proper attention. This view aligns with the Shakespeare Ensemble’s “thing about being an Ensemble,” as Nicholas described it. He also believes, like many other directors, that certain aspects of the script can be strategically adjusted. Although the Ensemble won’t allow The Tech to divulge any details, the director says “if you know the play backwards and forwards, there may be some surprises in the text.”
This production will be like no version of Hamlet you’ve ever seen before, and you will not be able to know just what’s in store until you see for yourself. Reserve your tickets now at ensemble.mit.edu, and prepare to be coaxed to the edge of your seat with excitement.