Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Dark Room (workshop)

Self w/Katherine Nash (Jan 2024)
So, the thing is, right … I’m kind of between writer’s groups right now? It’s not that I’m afraid of commitment, I just haven’t found the right ensemble of people to be with yet.

One great advantage of being a member of a writers’ group is that it creates for you a deadline. If you are on your own, you set your own timeline for creation. If you meet with colleagues – once a week, once every two weeks, once a month – you may be expected to produce a certain number of pages. And so you have a responsibility outside of yourself, you have homework.

Twenty or so years ago, my wife invited me to join her writers’ group. They met at the Case Campus Arabica (now The Coffee House at University Circle) and it was with this ensemble that I began work on what became I Hate This (a play without the baby). Sharing individual scenes from a larger work, as I was composing it, this was a new experience to me. It was a supportive ensemble and extremely rewarding.

Some years later, after this team had amicably parted ways, I tried starting a writers’ group on my own, which lasted two weeks. We had infant children and I wasn’t in the right place to be managing anything that would take up so much time outside of work. I didn’t want to run a writers’ group, you know? I wanted to be in one. I’d just ended a theater company, I still wanted to create things, I was done with running them.

By 2008, I had been invited to join the (former) Playwrights’ Unit at the Cleveland Play House, and that was when my work started to take off. We were required to bring ten pages every two weeks, and that’s when I really started writing them plays. I developed well over a dozen full length plays and several more short works before the Unit folded nine years later.

Since that time I have been a much more consistent writer, continuing to write plays on my own time. When a draft is complete, I will host a private reading to hear how it sounds and to receive comments. What I do miss, however, is receiving feedback as the work progresses.

So I have been going to the Dark Room.

The Dark Room is like an “open mic” for playwrights, to hear their work read aloud. It started about twenty years ago, a program of the (former) Cleveland Theater Collective, an organization created to foster and support collaboration between all area theaters.

Management and maintenance of the Dark Room was turned over to Mindy Childress Herman in 2007, John Busser signed on to co-manage two years later, and they have shepherded the program ever since, in various sites on the campus of Cleveland Public Theatre. It’s a free event, the second Tuesday of the month folks gather to have their work read, to read the works of others, or just to witness.

Paul Manganello (Feb 2017)
I’ve had the Dark Room as a repeating date on my Google calendar for years without ever attending. I mean, I had attended a couple of times. I can even remember them. I read a piece from And Then You Die (How I Ran a Marathon in 26.2 Years) in 2008. In 2017, I brought an actor from Michigan I was working with and he read a new work. But I didn’t make it a habit. I live in Cleveland Heights, it’s a Tuesday, I have kids, and so on. And I already had a writers group.

You know that list of things you say you’ll get to, but never do? Since our youngest headed off to school, I have found myself actually doing those things. And one of those things is the Dark Room.

There’s this thing I’ve been working on, I won’t go too far into it, it’s inspired by a lot of recent discoveries I’ve made, about my family, about my life. I got an idea for a structure, a family story told in reverse chronology. So I’ve been bringing pieces to the Dark Room since November, to read them in actual chronological order, to hear how folks respond to them, and the response has been pretty positive.

Better than that, however, has been listening to the other works. It's a good time! And the community, this Cleveland theater community, folks I see sporadically — or every fucking day on Facebook but that’s not the same, you know? I’ve grown accustomed to, or made myself accustomed to the familial solitude mandated by the quarantine, and I’ve always had a degree of social anxiety, anyway.

But sweet are the uses of community. I am glad for such company.

Special thanks to Mindy and John for their contributions to this post.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

This Is Not The Play (workshop)

One year (it was 2008) we were conducting a summer camp for CMSD middle school aged kids, and each member of our team chose one discipline to focus on; we had our dance captain, visual art instructor, music director, acting coach. I was to teach creative writing. I had never taught writing before in my life.

In preparation, I requested only two supply items; a Moleskine for each camper and an inexhaustible supply of pens. Yes, the kids could have used spiral bound notebooks, or even lined, loose-leaf paper. But I figured it this way, if they were going to take writing – during the summer – seriously, I wanted them to have something special to write in.

It was a good experience. We played with rhetorical devices. A “ya mama” joke is just a metaphor, right? We flipped that and wrote metaphors about ourselves, comparisons which could be amusing in their grandiose self-confidence. "I'm so cool they put me in lemonade." We also wrote poems and other bits of prose.

Of course, for some campers the time we spent together was torturous. Some people just don’t want to write, they definitely don’t want to write during summer vacation. I don’t blame them. Some were so resistant to the idea of writing I just sent them to work with another one of the instructors. It was a camp, it was supposed to be fun.

The company I work for has been hosting a different summer arts camp in another part of greater Cleveland since 2010, but I never considered suggesting I teach writing again until last year. We made it elective; there was time mapped out for visual arts, you could do that or you could write. I didn’t want to have a single person engaged in the writing workshop who didn’t want to be there.

It was just a one hour block. I began our second day of camp making the offer; anyone who wanted to write instead of do art, even if it’s just one person, I would be happy to work with them. Most chose art, I got six people. That was perfect.

We found an area of quietude, camp can be pretty noisy with kids from elementary to high school all over the place. It was a relief in the late morning to be able to concentrate with our small cadre. We sat around a table in the house of the auditorium, the lights were dimmer than the brightness of the stage. I played instrumental jazz on my phone, or noise for focusing from an app I'd discovered.

My lesson plan was mostly the same each day, and inspired by the daily writing ritual I had employed to create the short play project. Unlike with my solitary, quarantine era writing, however, each brief writing period with the campers included the opportunity for a debrief and reflection.

1. Free Write (10 min.)
  • How was that?
  • What did you discover?
  • What surprised you?
2. Single Word Prompt (10 min.)
They were asked to choose one from three suggested one-word prompts.*
  • Darkness - what we can’t see
  • Normal - what does that mean to you?
  • Frozen - a moment in your life you wish you could freeze and preserve and keep
Similar debrief questions, adding, "Would you like to share what you wrote about?"

3. Dialogue (10 min.)
Choose a central question inspired by your response to the previous prompt.
  • Create dialogue between two characters, no names, no specific gender, no stage directions (Unless you feel any of these things are necessary, then go ahead. It’s your work.)
Sharing the work, al fresco.
That was the first lesson. The next day, when we broke into these groups, I made it clear that if you changed your mind and would rather create visual art than writing, that was cool. And also that if anyone else wanted to try the writing, that would be cool, too.

To my delight, we pretty much had six people each day for the rest of camp. Five were committed, the sixth was usually someone new who tried it out once, maybe twice.

From the second day forward, the third ten minutes could be for creating something new from that day’s chosen prompt, or campers could continue or rewrite something they had previously written.

By the end of the first week we had a name for the writing group. Early on, when I proposed writing from a prompt, one of the campers asked, “Is this the play? Are we writing the play?”

“This is not the play,” I told them, which struck them as amusing, the way I said it. It became a daily reminder about the free writing periods. “This is not the play.”

We also wrote some poems, we read our work aloud. I encouraged them to choose one piece to polish, type up and share with the rest of the middle and high school age campers, and to get other kids to read and perform their new scripts.

During our last session together, at the end of camp, we talked about submissions, competitions, their writing aspirations. We recently announced the dates for this year’s camp. I’m looking forward to it. I think there will be writing.

*Source: Think Written | 365 Creative Writing Prompts

Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Toothpaste Millionaire (book)

The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill was published in 1972, and it was a book I treasured when I was in elementary school. It is the story of an intrepid sixth grader from East Cleveland who creates and successfully markets a new brand of toothpaste.

I’ve always loved stories of independent young people making their own way through the world. Also, from a young age I was fascinated with making and selling things. Growing up, the corner counter in our kitchen had been transformed by me, so many times, into supermarkets, post offices, computer warehouses, medical centers, greeting card stores, that my parents and brothers just casually referred to that counter as my shop.

“Where should I set this stack of magazines?”

“Put them on Karl’s Shop.”

They used to call me Karl.

I saw the ABC After School Special adaptation of The Toothpaste Millionaire, maybe not when it first aired in 1974, but surely upon one of its many reruns, and that further inspired my interest in the original text.

Another thing that compelled me was the setting, East Cleveland. We Clevelanders do love it when people recognize and acknowledge our existence. Jean Merrill, who died in 2012, spent some of her early years living in the Cleveland area where her father was employed by Republic Steel. Most of her childhood, however, was lived in upstate New York.

Like a lot of folks, I think Merrill had heard of “East Cleveland” and assumed it was the name of a neighborhood on the east side of the city of Cleveland, and was unaware of the particular transformation that was taking place in the inner-ring suburb of East Cleveland just as she was writing this brief novel.

In any event, I have now written a stage adaptation of The Toothpaste Millionaire for Talespinner Children’s Theatre, and it absolutely takes place in East Cleveland, circa 1970. Last week we held the first official reading, and it was an evening of pure joy. Both then and also at a private reading I held late last year, it was delightful to hear a room of adults laugh from dialogue which was intended for an elementary school audience. I think anyone from the age of eight and up will be engaged, amused and inspired by the story of Rufus Mayflower and his friends when it hits the stage in May.

The Talespinner Children's Theatre production of "The Toothpaste Millionaire" by David Hansen, based on the book by Jean Merrill and directed by Ananias Dixon, opens Saturday, May 18 at the Rainey Institute, 1705 E 55th St, in Cleveland.

Source: The Toothpaste Millionaire, 35th Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

This post was updated on February 6, 2024, and now includes information about Jean Merrill which was generously provided by her estate.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Hamlet & Me (Part XII)

Gertrude & Hamlet
Laura Perrotta, Laura Welsh Berg
Great Lake Theater, 2017
Photo: Roger Mastroiann
"What then? What rests?"
- Hamlet, III.iii

To conclude, I have seen more live stage productions of Hamlet than any other play by Shakespeare, except for perhaps As You Like It, which is a shame because, as G.B. Shaw said, “It is not as I like it.” But the latter is more commonly produced than the former at a rate of at least ten-to-one.

There are, of course, the recent stage productions of Hamlet adapted for television and much beloved by my contemporaries, those starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Paapa Essiedu, Andrew Scott or David Tennant. Oddly enough, I have never made the time to watch any of those. The fact is, I love to hear Shakespeare in a theater, live or filmed, but have little patience for him on the small screen.

I can think of three downright terrible live productions of Hamlet. I haven’t made mention of any of them in this series of posts, but I will say the principal sin of each of these productions was a lack of inspiration. Hamlet is such a weird play, the man himself such an odd character, you can’t just decide to “do” Hamlet. When you aim at a king, etc.

A couple years ago I recounted my experience thrilling to Clayton Jevne’s One-Man Hamlet at the Minnesota Fringe (you may watch the entire show online) and I am still smarting that I did not make time to see the Israeli Cameri Theatre troupe perform the play entirely in Hebrew when they visited Cleveland in 2008. I have yet to see Hamlet performed in another language, but I know the text so well that I think doing so would be a fascinating thing to do. I will not pass on another such opportunity.

If I were to elevate one Hamlet that I have enjoyed above all others, that would be Laura Welsh Berg at Great Lakes Theater in 2017. This was not a gender-concealed retelling, like the Asta Nielsen film or my Beck Center production, Berg was playing Hamlet as a man, in Elizabethan dress and on a stage design to evoke the Globe. It was the most “traditional” production of Hamlet I’d ever seen, and it was a revelation.

While I do not agree with what Edward P. Vining characterized as feminine “weaknesses” in the Dane’s psychology, I have found that Hamlet’s transparent misogyny becomes something quite else when communicated by a woman. Disappointment instead of derision. Empathy instead of anger. Berg powerfully embodied all of the grief and rage and condescension Hamlet holds for his father, his uncle, Polonius, while also making the “nunnery” and “closet” scenes, in which he traumatizes first his lover and then his mother, truly affecting for all parties.

Recently, I read the script for the new play The Motive and the Cue by Jack Thorne. Inspired by the books Letters From an Actor by William Redfield and John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in "Hamlet" by Richard Sterne. It is an imagined dramatization of the rehearsal process for that 1964 Broadway production.

I find that this script is most successful at describing to an audience just what it is a director does – and what they should not do – as the legendary though cash-poor Gielgud endeavors to shape the performance of the besotted but powerful Burton in a role that he, Gielgud, knows all too well, or perhaps much too well, while Burton struggles to make the role his, Burton’s, own.

It's a play I'd like to attend. Better still, I'd like to play Gielgud. I think I could. And anyway, no one ever asked me to play Hamlet.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Hamlet & Me (Part XI)

Edward P. Vining was a Union Pacific executive in the 19th century and a part-time thinker. He independently developed a unique theory regarding the three extant versions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The First Quarto of 1603, the Second Quarto of 1604 and the First Folio of 1623.

Vining believed each subsequent version was a revision of the one previous, each an improvement upon its predecessor on the way to an ultimate, perfect vision of Hamlet which the Stratford man either did not complete or that has been lost to history.

That’s not the unique bit. No, Vining’s grand theory focuses on what he perceived as an increasing “femininity” in the character as these draft progress, as the Dane becomes ever more thoughtful, emotional, and hesitant to act. Soft, if you will.

That Vining's theory is entirely misogynist goes without saying. What is interesting, from a narrative standpoint, is how Vining suggests it was possible that Hamlet was born female, that it was kept a secret, and that she was raised to pass as male. Vining set this all down in his book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (1881).

Vining’s theory may have been lost to history, but that it was elevated by Danish film star and producer Asta Nielsen, who used his theory when deciding to play the title role as the premiere offering from her new production company, Art-Film. This 1921 silent film version is quite possibly the best adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet ever made.

Asta Nielsen in "Hamlet"
Art-Film, 1921
Here’s the thing: We know "Young Hamlet was born" on "that day that our last King Hamlet overcame [Old] Fortinbras." A gravedigger tells us so. (HAM V.i) But what if word traveled faster than the old Danish King, and that it was reported that it was he who had been slain? To secure the throne in a time of war, the new mother, Queen Gertrude, announces a son! By the time Old Hamlet returns, the lie has been widely accepted and is held as truth. The girl is raised a prince, only her mother and father aware of the deception.

This is all prologue. The question then is how this all affects her, Hamlet’s, relationships with Ophelia, Horatio, her mother, the new king Claudius, everyone? In 2006, I directed another production of Hamlet at Beck Center for the Arts, inspired by Nielsen’s film, and starring Sarah Morton in the lead, supported by an outstanding company of local artists.
“Since Hansen is experienced and demonstrably astute, there are no embarrassments here and much to appreciate. Most to be appreciated is his shrewd casting of the lady Hamlet. Sarah Morton is a palpably enchanting stage presence – smart, wry, covertly vulnerable and hesitantly self-confident. Properly attired, she's also tall, thin and still tomboyish enough to get away with the physical aspects of the evening's masquerade." - Damico [2]

"Oozing misery and nerves, Morton plays a Hamlet pierced by grief and drunk on death. She handles the language flawlessly, and several of her scenes are the best I've ever seen  her death, and the "nunnery" scene with Ophelia (a sensitive Rachel Lee Kolis)." - Eisenstein [3]

Hamlet & Horatio
Sarah Morton, Nick Koesters
Beck Center, 2006

One of the original aspects of this adaptation, one highlighted in Nielsen’s film, is the love triangle between Hamlet, Horatio and Ophelia. Each love goes unrequited and misunderstood, until the final moments of the tragedy. In the 1921 film, Horatio cradles the dead Hamlet and, in an unintentionally comic moment, discovers her breast. In our 2006 version, Hamlet instead chooses to “out” herself:
“In the final scene, a dying Hamlet places a kiss on Horatio's lips, revealing her true feelings. It's a poignant moment In a credible production of the fiendishly difficult, challenging play, one that keeps the integrity of the language and drama intact.” - Heller [1]

[1] "Review: Hamlet" by Fran Heller, Backstage, 10/16/2006
[2] "Shakespearean Mélange a Trois: A Bardic Orgy of Drag, Gender-bending and Shaky Celibacy" by James Damico, The Free Times, 10/4/2006
[3] "Hamlet @ Beck Center" by Linda Eisenstein,, 10/1/2006

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Hamlet & Me (Pre-Show Announcement)

Tom Cullinan, Brian Pedaci & me
Backstage at the Brick Alley Theatre
I was the youngest of three boys, my eldest brother is seven years older than I am, so I got a lot of shit. But my brothers weren't the kind of bullies who beat me up, in fact they never laid a hand on me. 

No, they were all poncy geeks and their friends were, too. The abuse that was heaped upon me was mental, literate snark. I would be mocked for existing, and god forbid I actually did or said anything stupid because I wouldn't only be ridiculed for the moment, there would be callbacks that went on for years.

As a result, I have always been extremely defensive about being made fun of, to the point of being no fun at all. I cannot take a joke, or at least I could not until I met my wife Toni who fills me with such confidence that I became a different person. This is true.

However, allow me to share a moment from my past when I was a complete noodge and ruined a great joke because of my insecurities. When we started Bad Epitaph Theater Company, I was determined that we present ourselves as professionally as possible. 

That included, for example, that the program include the UK model of company bios, where they are not third person narratives but a list of previous work. Some grumbled, but I wasn't about to provide the audience a dozen paragraphs that all begin the same way, "So-and-so is thrilled to be part of this production!"

I also insisted upon a pre-recorded pre-show announcement, which was not the convention at the time. I provided sound designer Walter Mantani with this text to be played right before the show begins:

Good evening.  Bad Epitaph Theater Company welcomes you to the Brick Alley Theatre. We hope you enjoy our performance, which will begin momentarily. First a few announcements. The production will last approximately three hours, with two, ten minute intermissions. Stage fog will be employed during the performance, and a firearm will be discharged onstage during the Second Act. Performers will be using the aisles for their entrances and exits. Please refrain from getting up or leaving the auditorium until an intermission. Out of courtesy for those around you, please refrain from having conversations during the performance, and if you have a cough or sore throat, you might like to take the time now to unwrap any throat lozenges or candy. Please take a moment and turn off any cellphones or pagers. Thank you for your attention, and enjoy the show.

Yes! We had content advisories in the twentieth century. Anyway, it was important information and Walter has such a beautiful, stentorian voice, I wanted it to be his, and not mine.

That recording was not played for the final dress for our first production, Hamlet, however. Instead, they played an alternate version. It was a joke, but I didn't think it was funny and was very direct with Marian, our stage manager, that it never be played again, that under no circumstances should it ever be played before any performance.

I mean, of course she wouldn't. It was a joke. For the company to enjoy. If it happened today, I would howl with laughter. At the time I took it all too seriously. Because I thought I was being made fun of.

So, anyway, here it is! I posted this on YouTube years ago, and people love it, it's gotten over eight thousand views which for me is a lot. Have a listen ... and enjoy the show!

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Hamlet & Me (Part X)

Player Queen, Player King
Lee T. Wilson & Pandora Robertson
"Dumb Show" choreographed by David Shimotakahara
Bad Epitaph Theater Company, 1999

Twelve years ago, Cleveland said good-bye to its last full-time theater critic. At that time, I expressed concern over the larger implications of that vacancy. Love critics or hate them, they write theater history.

Thomas Cullinan & Brian Pedaci
Upon the recent announcement that Peter Marks is stepping down from his position as critic for the Washington Post, New York Times critic Jason Zinoman expressed a similar lament.
“The historical record will also suffer. Losing this spot in my opinion matters more than losing a film or book critic because theater is ephemeral. My memories of shows I saw in DC as a kid have faded. The only thing that keeps them alive is the archive of reviews. Reviews mean that theater art lives forever and can keep getting discovered.” - Jason Zinoman on Facebook 12/18/2023
Looking over my journal for Hamlet, I was shocked at how much direct communication I had with members of the print media over that period; calling them on the phone, accosting them in public. It was 1999, and promoting your show exclusively online was not yet a thing. We had a website, yes, but we could only drive people to that through our print advertisements!

No mass theater email lists, no NEOPAL, no social media, none whatever.

Ours was a new theater company and we needed coverage, in print, on paper. Plain Dealer Theater Critic Marianne Evett wrote a preview piece, mentioned our fundraiser in her column, and reviewed the show.

I harangued the guy who wrote a weekly theater round-up for the weekly Free Times to include our events in his column, and was simmering with rage those weeks he said he didn’t have the space. Without coverage, we didn’t yet exist.

But they did cover our work, the critics did come to see our independently produced show. They all came on the same night, which was terrifying for me, what if the power went out? In that space it was entirely possible. But the lights stayed on, as did the heat (another concern) and we were reviewed by the Plain Dealer, the Free Times, and Scene Magazine.

Over the past ten days, I have described several productions of Hamlet. This is how the historical record describes ours.

Jay Kim, Jason Popis
Gary Jones Christine Castro
David Hansen – Cleveland's champion of twentysomething madcap intelligentsia; founder of the antic subversive Guerrilla Theatre (sic) and the edgy Night Kitchen – has happily sought new horizons with his Bad Epitaph Theater Company.

Hansen, Thomas Cullinan and other BETC co-founders Alison (Garrigan), Brian Pedaci and Sarah Morton met at Dobama's Night Kitchen, where the quintet discovered compatible tastes and aims. As maturing, ambitious theater fanatics invariably do, they concluded, "It was time to take the next step." [3]

The group's creative esthetic will be expressed through an unslavish fidelity to texts and a reasonable respect for what's valuable in traditional performance practices. "People coming to us," (Hansen) cautions, "expecting some wild, shocking interpretation will be disappointed." [3]

The Bad Epitaph Theater Company will present their very first production, "The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," opening April 9 at the Brick Alley Theatre. [1]

Directed by Hansen, Hamlet features Thomas Cullinan as you know who, Alison (Garrigan) as Gertrude and Brian Pedaci as Claudius, supported by a 13-member ensemble. [1]

Alison Garrigan, Tom Cullinan
You’ve got to admire the guts of a new theater company giving birth to its baby with a whack at "Hamlet."

A judicious cutting of the script (reduced by a sixth and shaped into three acts that average an hour each), primarily reliant on following the narrative’s progression with an emphatic clarity, occurring in stripped-down, unspecific, but modernized setting and dress. [4]

Featuring an eclectic and dynamic cast, more grounded in Stanislavsky and psychological realism than in plumy vowels and exalted emoting, Hansen's "Hamlet" emphasizes fast-paced storytelling over poetry and pathos, yielding a robust, energetic production. [5]

The production… is a good one, given clear and thoughtful direction by David Hansen. The publicity has labeled it “in-your-face,” but in fact, the interpretation is straightforward and not at all confrontational or experimental. And the production shows how potent the play can be on its own, with the simplest possible set and costumes. [6]

Using modern dress, ingenious economy, and performers who know how to captivate a wide variety of audiences, this interpretation reproduces in spirit the immediacy and vitality that the original cast production likely flaunted. [5]

Christine Castro
It’s a decided relief and pleasure to report that the Bad Epitaph Theater Company’s most respectable production of the hallowed classic not only justifies a touch of audacity, but, much more crucially, earns the genuine anticipation of the group’s next, hopefully less historically perilous, project.

The guiding force here is clearly director Hansen, who demonstrates a well-defined and knowledgeable understanding of the play, apparent in the production’s major strength — its sharply etched, thoroughly lucid story line. [4]

Hansen propels his three and a half hours without a single traffic jam. [5]

We seem to be reviewing posters lately, so I must say that if (Thomas) Cullinan acts half as well as he looks as the all-in-black modern-dress Hamlet, well, he ought to be dynamite. [1]

Cullinan immerses himself in the complex role, pacing it well and letting you see the fluctuations in Hamlet’s moods. His terror at meeting with his father’s ghost (a strong performance by Hansen), his easy banter with Polonius or the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his anguish in confronting his mother – all add up to a moving performance. [6]

Marie Andrusewicz
Cullinan is first of all the right thirtyish age — not too callow to have had the required depth of experience nor too old, which would upset the balances of various character relationships. The blond actor’s unmarked features additionally generate a still boyish, brooding self-interest — not to say self-indulgence — that perfectly suits this most unheroic hero. Intelligent, word-obsessed, the often petulant eternal student is caught in an endless analysis of his own inaction until he’s forced to erupt in a violent release. The appealing Cullinan has these aspects well in hand and delivers a secure and sustained characterization.

This is a family drama, whose anguish builds throughout the evening. When Cullinan’s Hamlet dies, having finally brought about his vengeance on Claudius at the cost of so many other lives, you feel genuinely moved, touched, as you should be, by the waste of a promising young life. [6]

In a fearsome performance of finely carved detail that delineates a blighted soul, Brian Pedaci effectively evokes that vital something that is rotten in the state of Denmark. [5]  Pedaci is suitably conniving and slimy as Claudius, who has killed his brother, the old King Hamlet, married the queen and seized the throne. [6] Pedaci’s Claudius is commendable and particularly strong in his devious calculation. [4]

David Hansen
Alison (Garrigan) is also very good as Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. Looking beautiful and rather lost, she rises to the emotion-filled confrontation with her son in which she learns of her new husband’s treachery.

As Ophelia, Christine Castro is touchingly and authentically sweet. [4] When Ophelia flips her lid, she pistol-whips the entire court with her flowers. As her petulant big brother, Laertes, Jay Kim is boyish, brash, and impetuous. [5]

Some unconventional casting provides new insights into the play. Gary Jones is a stout, vigorous Polonius, a bustling middle-aged snoop rather than an old busybody. Marie Andrusewicz is quietly effective as Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio; Pandora Robertson gives the Player’s speech histrionic force; and Dawn Youngs has exceptional presence as Rosencrantz, Hamlet’s treacherous schoolmate. [6] Allen Branstein's gravedigger combines the best bits of Samuel Beckett and Walter Brennan. [5]

The Brick Alley (Theatre) is exactly that – a former alley roofed over and made into a building with a long, narrow theater space. Hansen and set designer Gunter Schwegler have put stages on each side, one backed by the building’s brick wall and the other by black and gold hangings. A walkway runs between them, with the audience seated across both ends. [6]

Pandora Robertson,
Allen Branstein
The result might look unconventional, but its flexibility and intimacy adds to the emotional immediacy of the show. [6] Schwegler and Jennifer Linn Wilcox’s scenic and lighting designs nicely adapt to the Brick Alley’s unusual two-sided arena space. [4]

For the academically inclined, yes, the language survives … an ideal introduction for untested Shakespeare neophytes and, for those suffering from overexposure, a perfect way to rekindle an old flame with a sweet prince. [5]

Bad Epitaph, which takes its name from Hamlet’s words to Polonius about the company of actors who have just arrived at Elsinore (“After your death, you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live”), is clearly a company worth having around. [6] 

Three professionally written reviews for one storefront theater production in Cleveland. Those days will not come again.

To be continued.

[1] “Happier notes” by Larry Gorjup, Free Times, 4/1/1999
[2] Calendar Listing, Editor, Scene Magazine 4/9/1999
[3] “…and the melancholy Dane” by James Damico, Free Times, 4/7/1999
[4] “Heavy Decisions: Of Hamlet and The Old Settler” by James Damico, Free Times 4/14/1999
[5] “Quite the Mischievous Boy: In Bad Epitaph Theater's production of Shakespeare's hit, it's dog eat dog in Denmark” by Keith A. Joseph, 04/15/1999
[6] “Company’s debut delivers potent version of Hamlet” by Marianne Evett, Plain Dealer, 04/17/1999