Skiing the mountain of Hamlet

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Danforth Comins talks about the Elizabethan Theatre, playing his third Danish prince, and this production’s aural soundscape

By SUZI STEFFEN

ASHLAND – If you’ve been to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at all in the past decade, you’ve likely seen Danforth Comins in a starring or other major role. From Orlando in As You Like It to Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, from Mark Antony in Julius Caesar to Coriolanus in, well, Coriolanus, Comins has played many a Shakespearean role – and he utterly dominated the role of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as well, coincidentally in the same year that the last Hamlet ran at the festival.

This year, Comins, playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, lays some hilarious hurt on boy-costumed Viola in Twelfth Night, where his dueling prowess is about as magnificent as hers. But he’s also playing the tortured Danish prince in an outdoor Hamlet, opening in the Elizabethan Theatre tonight: Friday, June 17. At some point among all of his fight rehearsals, scene-running and prep work for the Hamlet opening, Comins took the time for an interview with ArtsWatch. The edited Q&A is below.

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Suzi Steffen: You’ve played many a Shakespeare role, including Benedick and Coriolanus and Bertram and Orlando and Mark Anthony. And this is your third time playing Hamlet, though your first time at the OSF. What’s different or special about playing Hamlet?

Danforth Comins: Hamlet stands apart from many of the other plays in the canon because of its cultural significance and impact over the centuries, Coriolanus, great as it is, isn’t done very often, and the protagonist is not a knight in shining armor by any stretch of the imagination. Hamlet has succeeded through the centuries, maybe because it grapples with death and the afterlife. Those are topics that still elude us as society and a culture to this day; we’re fascinated.

In one of the books I’m reading about Shakespeare, the writer referred to a critique by someone on the play, which is, “I don’t see what the big deal is, it’s just a bunch of famous quotes strung together.“ That’s true. You can’t go a page without an adage or a cliché that’s been created from the play, from the text. That gives it a pop that many other plays in the canon don’t have. We have given it weight in a way that some of the other tragedies don’t have. Not to take anything away from the other tragedies, but when you start working on the play, it’s like, all right, we’re doing Hamlet. I have to throw all of my insecurities about the play out the window.

You have to say the words, start from the beginning, use the text. I feel humbled to have gotten the opportunity to play it more than once. And not to take anything away from the other productions I was in, but this is by far the deepest cast I’ve ever had. From acting side of the tables, from directing and design on down, it’s just a top-notch team. For instance, I have Al Espinosa and Ted Deasy as Marcellus and Bernardo, the guys on watch who first see Old Hamlet’s Ghost. Their last few seasons here, between them, they’ve played Petruchio, the Count of Monte Cristo, Malvolio and more, and here they are, playing palace guards. It’s an embarrassment of quality. I try to be conscious of how many awesome artists there are in the room with me.

What else about this Hamlet?

We have a musician and a great artist named Scott Kelly playing live throughout the entire show. Many of the sound cues are being performed live by the musician, and that adds a textural layer to the piece that I think will be engaging. I’ve been really excited with that marriage between an onstage musician and the text.

Can you say a little about Lisa Peterson, the director?

Lisa, this is her third show for the OSF, and also her third show outdoors. She has a reputation and a name around the country for doing a lot of new plays and new work, but I’ve been blown away with her ability to make Hamlet feel like a new play. I also think she knows that outdoor space really well. She directed Henry IV, Part II, and also the last Othello we did. She’s ferocious and gracious and generous, and she’s very specific in what she wants as a director and an artist. As an actor working under her, I feel refreshed by that. Theater is a benevolent monarchy, a benevolent dictatorship in the best sense of the word. It’s not a democracy. So, ideally, you get someone like Lisa, who’s kind and generous and who’s also firm and resolved.

What are some special things about the Elizabethan Theatre (the Lizzie), since it’s outdoors?

That outdoor space is … it’s very special. There’s a magic to that theater that is undeniable, when the light is darkening naturally, when you have a line about the stars and can actually look up and experience them. It’s one of the reasons people come back year after year.

From a performance standpoint, our demands for what we expect from theatrical performances have changed over the last 20 years. We demand a more intimate playing style. The Elizabethan is set up for declamatory performance. We have certain techniques we have to utilize to play that space, little things like moving ever so slightly before you speak. The eye is drawn to movement before the ear is drawn to sound.

You have to point and shoot with your thoughts as opposed to panning and scanning. The transition between thoughts is where you shift your focus. If you pan and scan, which you can do in the Bowmer, the wind, a passing plane, the lack of bounce can steal your voice from you.

Outdoors, early on in the evening, you have to pump out more volume, when people can see. They are distracted by other audience members, they are distracted by looking around the set and the house, a bird flying overhead. The air is heavier, hotter, a little more humid. As the night drops in, you can get more intimate. On a crisp fall evening, you don’t need a lot of vocal production in order to be heard, but on a hot summer night, you do. We all wish we could bring the intimacy of the rehearsal room to the Lizzie, but hopefully after three weeks of rehearsals and three preview performances out there, I certainly feel it in this production from the other players on stage. For me the intimacy is palpable. But it is a tricky space.

The administration in the last few years has added amplification. Ask 10 different people at OSF about that, and you’ll get 10 different responses. But training programs aren’t training actors to act in Elizabethan spaces anymore, and even in big houses on Broadway indoors, people are on mic or are amplified. To be clear, amplification only amplifies, it doesn’t create. If you’re sloppy, the mics will only amplify your sloppiness.

How do you approach playing Hamlet, with his many familiar lines, as a new experience?

Part of it is just, well, as I said, I’m going to start at the beginning, I’m going to say the words in order. It’s a story just like any other play is, and it’s my job to get through it with alacrity and grace. I try to stay in the moment. With a role as large as Hamlet, you can’t obsess about every single detail. You just have to ski the mountain and find your way through the slalom poles.

And we are trying a new attack that stays true to the overall arc and path of the story. We have embraced some anachronisms. It is largely a period production, set in Jacobean clothing, but we have some anachronisms. People shouldn’t be too thrown by it. If our founding forefathers rapping hip hop can be the smash hit of the decade, then I think we can all embrace anachronisms with more readiness.

I also think that with all due respect to each of the productions of Hamlet I’ve seen in the past, this production is trying to embrace the POV of all of the main characters, not just the titular protagonist. It’s a family tragedy at its core that destroys two households. Both lines get decimated. The weight of that is palpable in this production. I’m proud of the fact that it feels more like an ensemble effort.

Horatio (Christiana Clark), Osric (Benjamin Bonenfant) and Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) watch as Hamlet (Danforth Comins) and Laertes (Tramell Tillman) engage in a fencing match. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Horatio (Christiana Clark), Osric (Benjamin Bonenfant) and Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) watch as Hamlet (Danforth Comins) and Laertes (Tramell Tillman) engage in a fencing match. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

You’re playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night as well as the title role in Hamlet. How do you balance those plays? How do you keep in physical and vocal shape for those roles in rep?

For the soul, Twelfth Night is like cotton candy. It’s great to have these two to bounce between, from steak dinner to wonderful apple pie à la mode. They’re really great contrasts. Sir Andrew comes with a set of challenges: We’ve decided to highlight a lot of the physical comedy, and it’s a very physically demanding show. And I’m placing [my voice] in a part of my register that I don’t usually pitch; it’s higher.

I’ve yet to do a double day of performance. I would be lying to you if I were saying I didn’t have circled with a big red marker the five or six shows on the same day. Easier is doing Sir Andrew and then Hamlet. It would be really hard to do Hamlet and then Sir Andrew. You’re pretty spent after Hamlet. The role asks for everything you have as a performer and then more. You can’t help but leave it on the table. What more can you ask for in your work endeavor?

And they both have these great duels in them. One devolves into calla lilies; the other into blood and poison. It’s kind of great to have those two in the spectrum. It’s the best of what the rep can offer, two wildly different roles in the same day or in the same 36-hour window. That kind of opportunity that has allowed this company to flourish over the decades. It’s hard work, but it’s also a delight. It’s why many of us has made this our artistic home.

With the duels in both plays, how much extra fight call are you scheduling in this summer?

[Laughs.] There’s a fight call before every show. So let’s see … 120 Twelfth Nights, 240 times total just during the production, not counting rehearsals. With Hamlet, 40 outdoor performances, 80 times just in performance. And Hamlet is a very long fight. The fight call takes about 45 minutes before we open the house. I am at fight weight this season. It’s a license to eat whatever I want – one awesome benefit of doing two exhausting roles.

Anything else you want to say about this Hamlet?

Our director has worked with our design team in a remarkable way, but I want to give a special shout-out to our composer, Paul James Prendergast, who has worked hand in hand with Scott Kelly and Lisa Peterson so that the aural soundscape matches the depth and profundity of the script. I’m excited for people to experience it. I can’t say enough about the players I’m surrounded by. All down the line it’s a pretty remarkable group of artists to be surrounded with. And on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it’s an honor to be doing one of the greats.

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  • Hamlet opens the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s trio of outdoor productions on Friday night and continues on the Elizabethan Stage through October 14. The Wiz opens Saturday, June 18, and runs through October 15. The Winter’s Tale opens Sunday, June 19, and runs in repertory with the other two through October 16.
  • Ticket and schedule information for the entire eleven-show season, which began in February and continues through October 30, is here.
  • Suzi Steffen’s reviews of the first four productions of the current OSF season – Twelfth Night, The Yeomen of the Guard, Great Expectations, and The River Brideare here. Watch for her reviews of the season’s latest shows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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