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Elsinore
by David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield
Directed by Christopher Limber
Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company
September 24, 2021

Cast of Elsinore
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts

Hamlet, as one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, has been the subject for many treatments by other playwrights over the years. There have been parodies, sequels, re-imaginings, and more. The latest production by Prison Performing Arts’ Alumni Theatre Company is a prequel, called Elsinore and imagining what Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and company were doing in the years leading up to the famous tragedy. Seeing it staged in an engaging production at the Chapel over the weekend, I’m left with the thought that this is an intriguing idea that has a lot of potential if developed a little more. 

The play, written by company members David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield, features many of the well-known characters from Hamlet, with a few notable additions. The two-act structure features the characters at different times in their history–with the first act taking place 15 years before the events of Hamlet, and the second act taking place in the year leading up to the start of the more famous play. In Act One, the young Prince Hamlet (Oliver Bacus) is a rebellious teenager who resents his authoritarian father, the King (John Wolbers), and prefers goofing off with his buddies Rosencrantz (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Guildenstern (Joey File) or hanging out at the home of his uncle Claudius (Satterfield), who is happily married to Collette (Julie Antonic), who is expecting a child. King Hamlet is bothered that the young prince seems to favor his uncle, as well as being generally immature and not taking his role as heir to the throne seriously. Queen Gertrude (LaWanda Jackson) is also frustrated, but more at her domineering husband than at her son, who she suggests might benefit from being sent to study in Wittenberg. We also see the burgeoning romance between young Hamlet and Ophelia (Summer Baer), who has returned from an unhappy time at the royal court in France, and envies Hamlet’s opportunity to study. As the story progresses to Act 2, we get to see what all this education has done for Hamlet, as well as increasing the focus on Claudius, and his growing ambition as he serves a temporary term as regent while his brother is ill. Anyone who has seen or read Hamlet knows where the story is going, but the mystery concerns how events develop to that point, as tensions increase and scenes begin to parallel and foreshadow events in Shakespeare’s story. 

For the most part, playwrights Nonemaker (who also plays Polonius here) and Satterfield have constructed a compelling backstory for Hamlet, Claudius and company, with some clever nods to its inspiration as well as intriguing developments of the characters. There are a few things that could be worked on, though, as the second act is a bit long, and there’s a little too much “quoting” of the “parent play”. Also, the King Hamlet character comes across as one-dimensional much of the time, despite a strong effort from the consistently excellent Wolbers. The cast, made up of a mixture of Prison Performing Arts program alumni, professional and student actors, is strong, for the most part, as well. Satterfield as Claudius has perhaps the largest part, and his journey as a character increases in power as the story goes on. There are standout performances from File in a dual role as Guildenstern and as “Young Claudius” (son of the elder Claudius), Lawson-Maeske as Rosencrantz and Horatio, and Antonic as the sweet-natured  Collette; with fine performances across the board from the rest of the cast. The biggest standouts, though, are Bacus as the initially wild but gradually maturing young Hamlet and Baer as a witty, sort of feminist Ophelia. The scenes between these two are the true highlight of this production, and their chemistry is electric. Every moment they are onstage together is a delight. There were times I wished the whole play was about them, although knowing where their story is going to lead adds poignancy to these scenes, and the developing story of how Claudius becomes who he is in Hamlet is also intriguing. 

The staging is fairly simple, with a static set that consists of two thrones backed by flags. Erik Kuhn’s lighting helps set the mood, especially as the sense of mystery grows in the second act. There are also excellent, detailed costumes by Liz Henning and crisp, clear sound by Ellie Schwetye, with the technical elements working together well to help this production maintain a consistent look and tone.

Overall, Elsinore strikes me as a promising play that, with a little more development, could potentially be produced by other companies, as suggested by director Christopher Limber in his notes in the program. As produced at the Chapel by the PPA Alumni Theatre Company, it’s a thought-provoking production with an energetic cast. It’s a compelling look at what could have happened before the tragic events of one of the world’s most well-known works of theatre. 

John Wolbers, Oliver Bacus
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts

 

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