Review of Elsinore at Prison Performing Arts

    In Elsinore, David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield have written a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a different main character. The new play presented a bold perspective on a classic in last weekend’s fine production by the Alumni Theatre Company of Prison Performing Arts (PPA). It was the company’s first full-length production performed in the St. Louis community.

    Nonemaker and Satterfield are not the first playwrights to have adapted Hamlet, but their approach is poles apart from the one used by their illustrious predecessor, Tom Stoppard. His title characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead view the action of Hamlet from so far away they have no grasp of its significance. They exist in a world they cannot understand, like the two tramps Waiting for Godot.

    In contrast to Beckett and Stoppard, Nonemaker and Satterfield are not decrying the absence of meaning in life. Instead, they are out to find deeper meaning in Hamlet’s action by focusing on someone at its center: Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius.

    Satterfield explained the play’s origin in the press release for Elsinore: “In 2014 I had the opportunity to play Claudius in back-to-back PPA productions of Hamlet and the premiere of Hip Hop Hamlet. During the process of understanding the character, I couldn’t help but wonder why Claudius did the things he did prior to the curtain coming up on Shakespeare’s play.”

    “Hyperion to a satyr” is how Shakespeare’s Hamlet compares his father to Claudius. That comparison is far from accurate in Elsinore, in which King Hamlet (John Wolbers) is a tyrant in both his public and private lives and Claudius (Eric Satterfield) is a man of great warmth with a loving wife, Collette (Julie Antonic).

    Nonemaker and Satterfield set their first act approximately 15 years before the events of Hamlet. They appear to accept the chronology of the Gravedigger in Act 5 of Hamlet, so Elsinore’s Hamlet (Oliver Bacus) starts the play at about age 15.

    The authors have imagined a credible life for the prince, who has typical teenage relationships with Ophelia (Summer Baer), Rosencrantz (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Guildenstern (Joey File). At this point, Young Hamlet is much closer to his compassionate uncle than his demanding father, whose severity borders on abusiveness.

    The authors demonstrate admirable knowledge of their source in a clever reversal of the Shakespearean scene in which Claudius and Gertrude urge Hamlet to remain at court instead of returning to his studies at Wittenberg. In Elsinore, the prince’s wish is to stay in Denmark.

    The shrewdest instance of reimagining occurs at the start of Act 2. Fourteen years have elapsed, and Claudius is ruling in Denmark as regent for his ailing brother. Hamlet’s chagrin at having been passed over creates a rivalry for power that prefigures the one in Shakespeare.

    Hamlet’s feelings toward his father in Act 2 have evolved in a surprising way, but his explanation is believable. The play evokes sympathy for Queen Gertrude (LaWanda Jackson) in the way it depicts her estrangement from Hamlet’s father and the beginnings of her attachment to Claudius, who is now a widower.

    Claudius and Polonius (David Nonemaker) show remarkable political acumen when they solidify support for Claudius among the nobles who choose the king in Denmark’s elective monarchy.

    Christopher Limber, PPA’s former artistic director, delayed a move to California to direct this production. He brought clarity to the action and elicited credible performances. In addition to those already mentioned, the cast included Micah Shurtleff as Lord Waldemar and Laertes, Gary Brown as Lord Olaf, and Scott Brown as Osric.

    The production was supported by fine work from stage manager Jimmy Bernatowicz, lighting designer Erik Kuhn, costume designer Liz Henning, sound engineer Ellie Schwetye, and production manager Rachel Tibbetts.

    Fabric hanging at the rear of the stage contributed not only to the staging but also to taming the resonant acoustic of the Chapel. It has become an important venue, and the improvement in its sound for theater is a welcome development.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films