A group of about 140 students at Tulpehocken Area Junior/Senior High School recently had the opportunity to view one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, “Hamlet,” when the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre Open Door Tour visited the school. Twelfth-grade students who read the play in their English classes as well as Drama students and those involved in the fall play were the select audience that viewed the 75 minute abbreviated performance, followed by a question and answer period with the actors.
Principal Donald Jones introduced the show, telling the students that this was an opportunity for them to view a live production, something many of them might not have experienced before. Four actors portrayed 12 characters on the stage, using colored scarves as sashes, shawls and head-wraps to differentiate the various roles. The role of Hamlet, played by Johnny Smith, was the only character who did not repeat; not surprising, really, considering that Hamlet is the most loquacious of Shakespeare’s characters, having more lines than any role in all his plays. The other three actors alternated as the king and queen, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Horatio, and others. A simple red carpet and gray curtain, along with a couple of stools and a few hand props were all the equipment needed to suggest the battlements at Elsinore, the throne room, Gertrude’s chamber and Ophelia’s resting place. Much as on the bare stage of Shakespeare’s day, theatre-goers used their imaginations to fill in the details. Because the Tulpehocken auditorium was not darkened during the performance, not only could the audience see the actors, but the actors could clearly see the audience members as they performed, and even seemed to be speaking directly to the audience during soliloquies. This technique was especially effective for the black-hoodie-clad character of Hamlet himself, a young man of much the same age as those watching and with some of the same uncertainties and emotions. In the study guides provided by the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, Hamlet is described as “the original punk/goth,” weighed down by angst and melancholy, and it is the universality of the play’s themes that the cast tried to bring out. The study guides also contained background on Shakespeare and the theatre of his day, as well as classroom activities conforming to Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening, very important elements for schools when planning cultural events to enrich student learning.
During the Q and A following the show, students wanted to know how long it took the actors to learn their lines and whether they liked their jobs. “One month prior to rehearsals” and “love their jobs,” were the responses. Students were asked why they thought a play that is four hundred years old is still performed and enjoyed today, ultimately concluding that, despite differences in location and attire, the characters are pretty much like people today.