“To be or not to be…” We all know the line, but do we really understand it in the frantic life-or-death way that Hamlet was asking it? In the way legions of actors playing Hamlets have wanted us to understand it?
Bill Cain’s latest play, The Last White Man—running through October 30 at Bag & Baggage’s Vault Theater in Hillsboro—digs deep into precisely what it means to be. Or not to be. (Cain has been down the Shakespearean path before, with his revisionist play Equivocation, which premiered in 2009 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.)
Bag & Baggage’s founding artistic director, Scott Palmer, returns to direct The Last White Man, a play-within-a-play in which a Black woman, Xandri (Janelle Rae, the heart and soul of this production) directs three successive actors in a Broadway production of Hamlet.
Each of those actors grapples with that question of being (or not being).
First up is Charlie (Khail Duggan), a young and handsome Oscar-winning actor ready to prove his chops in theatre. Having seen Jude Law in Hamlet on Broadway in 2009, I couldn’t help but note the comparisons. Charlie is a seemingly lazy actor who is now faced with proving himself on Broadway — and, in the play, must also face his father’s ghost (like Hamlet, of course).
Next up is Charlie’s understudy — or is it standby? The play has some fun with the difference — Rafe (James Luster), the one who never gets the lead role but who is far from content backing up the young Charlie.
Finally we have Tigg (Tim Gouran), the revered and respected actor who is a bit past his prime but has somehow never played this most loquacious role in Shakespeare’s canon.
In this four-person performance, Luster and Rae seem to spend the most time onstage, as they are the bridges between Charlie and Tigg. Time shifts back and forth on stage frequently and instantly, which could be confusing were it not for Palmer’s precise directing, including two sets on the same stage — and exceptional use of lighting, designed by Jim Ricks-White, who does triple duty as technical director, scenic designer, and lighting designer. The scenic and lighting design are especially clever when we find ourselves, the audience, transported behind the curtain, watching the action play out onstage as if we are part of the stage crew.
This is a play about actors, so we have to mention the acting. Rae plays Xandri with a quiet strength. You can see in her eyes that she’s worked hard to get here and she is going to persevere through any obstacles she might face. Xandri is the easiest character to connect with here, the one whose emotions will likely drive the audiences, and Rae is a trustworthy emotional guide.
Luster is excellent as Rafe, which is to say he can be awful (you might want Xandri to fire him more than once during the performance). He plays Rafe with a desperation and cunning that will make you feel for him even when you might despise what he’s doing.
Gouran is superb as Tigg, who comes in a little later in the show but will both surprise you and earn your affection. Tigg is a kind and weathered actor, still a big enough name to draw attention but no longer a star like Charlie. Gouran plays him with a quiet strength and sadness.
Duggan is a solid actor, but he doesn’t quite hold his own in the company of these other three. Or is that intentional? After all, Charlie is the movie-star actor who might not be able to measure up to someone like Tigg, or even someone like Rafe, who takes his work so seriously.
The premise sounds complicated, but Palmer’s production makes it easy to follow on the stage. If you find yourself wondering why a play about Hamlet, and why now, it’s a fair thing to consider. Cain seems to be asking, with this play, if Hamlet still matters in today’s world. He is, after all, the ultimate white man – and haven’t we heard enough from them? Xandri even convinces herself that, if this production goes right, we will never need another Hamlet. With so many voices in today’s theater, do we still need this one?
The answer, I’m afraid, is not simple – and neither is playing Hamlet for any of these men, who all suffer and swordfight their way through the performance of a lifetime.
For now, for Hamlet — as it always has been for Hamlet — “To be or not to be? That is the question.”
Warning: Suicide is frequently talked about by the characters in this play. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide or other mental health concerns, you can get free and confidential support at anytime by calling or texting 988.