Has this guy gone mad? Or are his bizarre antics merely an act? The question has been asked of a number of public figures, male and female, in recent weeks. But traditionally, it is aimed at one particular member of the ruling elite: Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark.
Here’s the deal. Hearing of the sudden death of his father, the king, Prince Hamlet rushes home from the university where he is studying. He is shocked and appalled to find his mother, Gertrude, has married his Uncle Claudius, who has ascended to the throne.
Late one night, the tormented prince is visited by his father’s ghost, who tells his son he was murdered by Claudius and implores him to avenge his death. Hamlet is stunned: He is unsure whether the apparition is from heaven or hell, and uncertain as to where to go from there.
He proceeds to “put an antic disposition on,” uttering a series of seemingly crazy and sometimes cruel comments in blatant defiance of court etiquette. Throughout the centuries, scholars, directors, and critics have argued about whether Hamlet has gone temporarily insane or whether he is feigning madness to buy himself time while he figures out what to do.
Jessica Kubzansky, the critically acclaimed Los Angeles-based director who is staging a new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy at Theater 150 in Ojai, comes down firmly on the side of those who believe his sanity genuinely has been shaken.
“I think his brain is whirling so hard that he goes a little mad,” she said. “I think if Hamlet wasn’t such a deep thinker, he would have less difficulty. Because he is so brilliant, and sees so many sides of the same coin, his brain is a torture to him.”
To Kubzansky, Hamlet is (among other things) a profound exploration of grief and loss, a topic our society isn’t very comfortable with. “In America, we like to think death is an aberration,” she said. “It happens to other people-people with bad fortune. We have this idea that after two months, you really should get over [the loss of a loved one]. In the play, everyone else has moved on, but Hamlet is gobsmacked by grief over the death of his father. Anyone who has lost a parent knows there is a huge outpouring of sympathy right away [after the death], and then the world goes on about its business and forgets that there is a period of adjustment where you have to reorganize your life. Everyone asks, ‘Why are you so down in the dumps?’ That’s an extraordinarily universal theme.”
Indeed, it’s one of many such themes in what widely is considered one of the greatest plays ever written.
“Everyone has experienced betrayal of a friend, the loss of a loved one, the crashing down off the pedestal of a parent,” Kubzansky said. “Everyone has experienced the yearning to somehow make things right, combined with an inability to know exactly how to do that. The humanity of his experience is deep and rich and completely universal. Although Hamlet does some things that seemingly are reprehensible, because Shakespeare has written him so richly and complexly, you cannot help but empathize with and understand him-if you have an actor who can inhabit him fully.”
Kubzansky strongly believes she has found such a performer in Leo Marks, a Los Angeles-based actor who has worked in regional theaters around the country. “Leo was born to play Hamlet,” she said. “He has the intellect, the power, and the passion.”
The same can be said of Kubzansky, who has directed all around southern California to great acclaim and serves as co-artistic director of The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena. She met Deb Norton, co-artistic director of Theatre 150, some years back when she directed a reading of one of her plays. The two kept in touch, and when Norton offered her the chance to stage Hamlet, she quickly agreed, noting it’s one of two plays she feels compelled to direct before she dies. (The other is Waiting for Godot.)
“My Hamlet is the story of a boy who is perfectly content to stay at the university and think deep thoughts,” she said. “He had no interest in the affairs of state. In fact, he scorned them. For me, the journey of Hamlet is that of the perpetual student who, throughout the course of the play, discovers that he actually wants to be king.”
Kubzansky’s cast is a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors, most of whom are coming up from Los Angeles. Like most directors, she plans to make cuts in the lengthy text. “It’s not going to be the shortest Hamlet you’ve ever seen,” she said with a laugh. “It’ll be less than three hours, but it may end up being 2:59. Too much of that shit is amazing!”
Hamlet previews July 16 and 17 and runs July 18-August 8 at Theater 150 (316 E. Matilija St., Ojai). Tickets are $14.50-$29. For more information, call 646-4300 or visit theater150.org.