Jon Patrick O’Brian in Hamlet
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Wallace
Review by Keith Waits.
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
There are many estimable company leaders populating the local art scene, but watching the new season of Kentucky Shakespeare unfold begs the question: Is Matt Wallace the most beloved Artistic Director in Louisville theatre? Even if it would embarrass him to hear it, the thought is not without foundation, and seems especially relevant in the midst of the most triumphant Shakespeare Festival in recent memory. After a long history with the company, his opportunity has arrived, and he has worked hard to make the most of it. Although many feel this leadership role should have fallen to him a few years ago, Mr. Wallace brushes off this moment in time with a declaration that he wasn’t ready then anyway, which seems genuine but also reflects an ingratiating humility that helps explain how he has earned so much loyalty from local theatre professionals.
The irrefutable evidence of that loyalty is in the impressive ensemble that he has employed to essay A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, and now, under his direction, Hamlet. The breadth and virtuosity of this troupe of players, drawn mostly from Louisville, is illustrated by the work of Jon Patrick O’ Brian, who, after smaller roles in the previous plays, here delivers a most excellent Prince of Denmark.
All three productions this year have been firmly but joyously rooted in the traditional, so that attention to character and story has not been challenged by fancy post-modern settings or unorthodox context. The text leads the way and when a player like Gregory Maupin presents the funniest Polonius I have ever seen it is because he finds the humor in the language. So the fact that Mr. O’Brian finds complexity in his Hamlet by trusting the text through the abrupt shifts in emotion and intention becomes just the most obvious example of the virtue of this production. He can be manic and Machiavellian in one scene and then emotionally fragile and revelatory in the next, particularly in the introspective monologues, which have helped make this the most quotable of Shakespeare’s plays. It is a powerful performance of alternating dignity and rage that connects the audience to the story in the most meaningful way.
There is no evidence of misstep by anyone on this stage, but Megan Massie’s Ophelia is another standout, as is Abigail Bailey-Maupin’s Gertrude. The bedroom conversation with Hamlet played especially well, illuminating that moment as THE scene for her character. And Jon Huffman comes to the stage for the first time this summer as a regal and leonine Claudius that defies the stamp of easy villainy that is cliché for that character.
There are more laughs that might be expected from Hamlet, but when tragedy occurs it elicits gasps from the audience and the extended, confrontational finale had the impact of fresh storytelling. Viewers were leaning forward in their seats as swords crossed and poisons came into play, and the end felt deeply satisfying.
Wallace’s dedication to Kentucky Shakespeare is both personal and professional, having started with the company as an actor many years ago, and along the way he married and started a family with one of his co-stars, Tina Jo Wallace. He carries that familial dynamic easily into his management style, with a loyalty to former colleagues that is returned in kind. His goals are ambitious but are being achieved: a renewed commitment to ideals that had fallen by the wayside in recent years: no admission charge, casting more from the local talent pool (awash in KY Shakes veterans), and an ambitious schedule that would replace the one main stage production of recent seasons with three full-length plays and one student production from the company, as well as invitations to Le Petomane, Savage Rose Classical Theatre, Shoestring Productions and Walden Theatre, to bring their own productions into Central Park in August.
At this point in the Festival, the evidence that the bet on Matt Wallace’s vision has paid off is overwhelming: overflow crowds numbering in the hundreds, including multiple performances boasting over 1200 in attendance, putting this season on track to be the highest-attended festival on record.
July 10-13, July 15, 18, 23, 26, 27, 2014
Free Admission to All Performances
7:15 Pre-show/8:00pm Curtain
C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre
1340 South Fourth Street
Louisville, KY 40208