Sword fights, soliloquies and stagecraft: An Ithaca summer of Shakespeare

Three more Ithaca Shakespeare Company summer performances remain: Love’s Labour’s Lost will be performed tonight and on Sunday, while Hamlet will be performed tomorrow. All performances occur at the F.R. Newman Arboretum of Cornell Plantations. General admission costs $10, while reserved seating costs $25. Performances begin at 6 p.m. and last to about 8:30 p.m., with a 15-minute intermission in between.

Ithaca, N.Y. — It is a cool midsummer night, and the sun has just started to sift through the trees that hug the perimeter of the grassy amphitheater.

A hundred pairs of eyes fixate intently on a solitary man poised in an uncomfortable crouch that only partially captures his deep inner conflict. He pauses to readjust himself before letting the words flow eloquently from his lips.

“To be, or not to be,” he muses. “That is the question.”

This man is Hamlet, brought to life by Theo Black in the Ithaca Shakespeare Company’s summer production of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy.

Hamlet is one of two of the Bard’s works — the other being the comedic Love’s Labour’s Lost — that the Company is producing this summer.

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“I have sworn ‘t.” Young Hamlet makes a vow to his father, just like you should make a vow to see the Ithaca Shakespeare Company this summer. (All images by Owen Zhang / Ithaca Voice)

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The Shows

Hamlet is the story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark, whose father is murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, who then marries Hamlet’s mother, leading young Hamlet to seek to avenge his father.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, set in northern Spain, deals with the comic courtship of four young ladies by an equal number of noblemen, a matter complicated by a regrettable oath, a drunken page, and a clumsy Spaniard.

Or, in the words of Steve Ponton, director of the summer productions, “Hamlet is this famous dark, philosophical tragedy, and Love’s Labour’s Lost is the very frilly, exuberant comedy.”

Watching Hamlet writhe on the ground struggling with his murky thoughts, one cannot help but be drawn back to the night before when, on the same stage, a quartet of kings put on furry beards, hoping to disguise themselves as Muscovites in order to woo several women.

Indeed, at first glance, Hamlet, a play that adds a humorous lining to a calamitous plot, seems to be the exact opposite of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which features a sour twist on an otherwise hilarious farce. The juxtaposition of the two, however, was a conscious decision by Ponton.

Hamlet, although it is a tragedy, has a lot of funny parts in it; there’s a lot of comedy and wit in it. Love’s Labour’s Lost, although it is a comedy, has some really serious moments that are kind of unexpected,” said Ponton. “We like contrast between the different shows both to show the range of Shakespeare and to show the range of the cast.”

For the modern company, one challenge of producing a Shakespeare play is finding a way to make the play understandable and relatable to the audience.

Max Lorn-Krause, who played Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Horatio in Hamlet, said, “[Love’s Labour’s Lost is] not an easy play. . . . The language is very dense, and for an audience to get everything that’s going on is very hard. . . . The story has to be so clear.”

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For these shows, a big strategy was trimming excess lines that did not necessarily serve the plot or the message of the play. Ponton ultimately trimmed nearly 45 percent of the text in Hamlet.

“Some of the things in Shakespeare and in Love’s Labour’s Lost especially are just really obscure linguistic wordplay that nobody in a modern audience is going to understand,” he explained. “A lot of that just gets cut out, and it makes the play tighter. And it has a better running time.”

Physical comedy was used to reinforce the message, Ponton added.

“We build in a lot of moments of physical comedy and physical activity to both break up the verbal stuff and reinforce what’s going on in the language.”

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be heard, not seen necessarily,” Lorn-Krause echoed, “so when you do something that’s seen, it has to be bigger because people all the way back have to be able to see it, if they’re in the Globe Theatre, which is huge.”

On top of that was the challenge of working within the constraints of the performance venue.

“We try to have as little impact on the site as possible,” Ponton said. “There’s no lighting system, there’s no electricity . . . so everything is run off a generator, and there are no curtains; we can’t do a blackout to change scenes or anything like that.”

There may have been no challenge greater, however, than that which faced Theo Black as he attempted to portray the complex character Shakespeare created in young Hamlet.

When Hamlet learns that his father was murdered, he seeks to expose his uncle by pretending to be insane, but as things continue, he may actually begin to become detached from reality.

“Making the choices about when you’re playing mad is easy,” Black said, “but making the choices about when that madness actually begins to influence Hamlet, for me, are hard, so it’s not really a choice. It’s when whatever I’m focused on goes into that other mode.”

For Cassie Wood, who played Moth in Love’s Labour’s Lost, some challenges were more comical. One involved a pivotal scene in which her character, dressed as Hercules, battles a rather large, rather stuffed toy snake.

“I enjoyed coming out as Hercules and strangling the snake,” she said. “The first time I did it, I was just kind of like, ‘Oh, Hercules,’ and then they were like, ‘Oh no — get on the floor and do it,’ so I was like, ‘Oh HEY!’ So it just keeps on getting bigger and bigger.”

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The People

Many of those who star in the two summer productions are energetic, up-and-coming performers.

Sharing a love for Shakespeare, they flocked to Ithaca for Summer Shakespeare from various places around the country.

Some started right here in Ithaca. Among them are a Cornell Speech and Debate team coach, a former county judge, and quite a few Ithaca College alumni. Many have experience with other local theater groups, including Theatre Incognita, Running to Places, and the Hangar Theater.

Four of the actors happen to hail from the same town in California. One summer, Theo Black, who now lives in Ithaca with his Cornellian wife, returned to his hometown of Grass Valley, California to perform at the high school of a girl named Amanda Ratti. Months later, the two would act side by side as Hamlet and Ophelia, respectively, in the Ithaca Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet this summer.

Black urged Ratti, along with fellow Grass Valley residents Josh Triplett (Guildenstern in Hamlet and the King of Navarre in Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Trevor Wade (Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost) to give Summer Shakespeare a try.

Despite their different origins and backgrounds, cast members seem to have bonded well.

The atmosphere at rehearsals is “casual when it needs to be casual and serious when it needs to be,” said Lorn-Krause. “You got to have the work ethic but you also got to have fun as a cast.”

For some, performing in the summer productions has been a personal milestone in addition to being a fun experience.

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“This is my first professional show,” said Bretana Turkon, who played Maria in Love’s Labour’s Lost. “It’s great actually getting to work with people who do all their homework before coming to rehearsals.”

Many of the performers have just recently graduated and are hoping to make a living as performers in an industry known for its ups and downs.

“It sounds cliché, but the easy part is once you get the role,” said Ratti. “The hardest part is auditioning and trying to audition, not getting seen at auditions, looking at auditions every day, reading auditions, reading plays that people have written.”

Actors must put in a lot of work even after securing parts. In order to pull off a cohesive, refined production of a play as famous as Hamlet, performers must do extensive research into the historical context of the play and into the ways in which their characters have been portrayed in other productions, all while making sure that their acting remains clear and confident.

“I read a lot of literary reviews and psychological essays on Hamlet that dealt with Ophelia, trying to get into the different theories on how mad is she, what causes the madness, what type of madness is it, is it different from Hamlet’s antic disposition,” said Ratti. “So, a lot of reading.”

Hamlet costume designer Sarah Rodbourne said, “I look at a lot of art history books and costume history books to get an idea of what the look is. And then I have to convert the look into something that can be worn in Ithaca in the summer.”

And adding to those challenges was the fact that many of the performers starred in both Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

“It’s always difficult, especially with two very different plays, but you kind of just have to focus — you do this one this night and this one this night,” said Lorn-Krause. “It goes back again to being serious when you need to and casual when you need to.”

But for most, the satisfaction that a successful performance provides and all the fun that the cast experiences along the way far outweigh the negatives.

For Rodbourne, “getting to make people look pretty” is the best part of her job.

“Just dressing Ophelia’s dress was really fun,” she recalled. “I literally put it on and crawled around my front yard and scooted down the hill on my butt. And then I just put paint where the grass stains and the dirt were.”

Overall, while acting can be challenging, most of those involved in this year’s Summer Shakespeare productions think it’s well worth it.

“It’s a little volatile, but you live your life and you’re doing what you love to do, so you don’t mind as much that you’re scraping by by the skin of your teeth,” Wood said. “When it’s great, it’s great, and when you’re not in the cast, it’s not as great, but the times that it’s great make up for that.”

 

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