Slings and arrows of 'Hamlet' are not for the unprepared

Joey Miler/Tennessee Shakespeare Company
Steven Patterson (left) is Claudius; Brian Sheppard is Hamlet.

Joey Miler/Tennessee Shakespeare Company Steven Patterson (left) is Claudius; Brian Sheppard is Hamlet.

Ophelia is played by Eva Balistrieri.
Photo credit: Joey Miler, Tennessee Shakespeare Company

Ophelia is played by Eva Balistrieri. Photo credit: Joey Miler, Tennessee Shakespeare Company

Hamlet solo, Brian Sheppard.
Photo credit: Joey Miler, Tennessee Shakespeare Company

Hamlet solo, Brian Sheppard. Photo credit: Joey Miler, Tennessee Shakespeare Company

Hamlet

Performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday and April 11-14 at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park. Tickets: $25 advance, $30 day of show. Call 901-759-0604.

“Hamlet” is not a play that professional theater companies perform lightly.

For Dan McCleary, producing artistic director of Tennessee Shakespeare Company, the decision to tackle history’s most critically dissected tragedy is never about selling tickets. It’s about making a personal statement.

“I was with a Shakespeare company for many years, and we didn’t do a full-out professional version until 2006, and that company was born in 1978,” McCleary said. “When I would ask (the director), she told me that she just didn’t think we were mature enough. You have to have a firm personal introduction.”

“Hamlet,” staged in borrowed space at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, is Tenn Shakes’ sole full-length Shakespeare title in this, the company’s fifth season.

McCleary, who is directing, says he was at first hesitant to mount the classic revenge tragedy about a young man wrestling with the decision to kill the uncle who murdered his father and married his mother.

“When I was an actor, I never felt like I was equal to playing the part,” McCleary said. “Then, as a director I kept it at arm’s length because if I can’t find a personal way into it, I can’t expect the audience to find a way into it. This is my first time dealing with the play this closely, and it’s changing for us every day.”

One epiphany for McCleary came about the time he turned 40 a few years ago. “If we look past what Hamlet is trying to do, the question he grapples with is what should he do with the rest of his life. How should he be of service to the world? It’s something we all think about, and certainly I was thinking about that when I started this company in my hometown. What sort of legacy would I leave behind?”

On a more technical level, McCleary said he finally found an appropriate indoor setting for “Hamlet.”

The itinerant company, which hires members of the actors union, had performed “Julius Caesar” in Germantown’s city hall, “The Tempest” in an amphitheater at Shelby Farms, “Othello” in a church and “Romeo and Juliet” in a garden.

But McCleary felt that “Hamlet” needed a more intimate environment. He turned the Weingardner Auditorium at the Dixon into a 150-seat Edwardian theater.

The Edwardian period, from about 1901-10 in the United Kingdom, interested McCleary from a design perspective. The costuming has a rich formality that Hamlet can defy as he descends into his “madness.” The music of Rachmaninov, Schubert and Fauré is used to evoke, as McCleary puts it, the “music of Hamlet’s mind.”

“Bringing ‘Hamlet’ into the 20th Century doesn’t put the piece under glass,” McCleary says. “It’s a play that easily travels through time.”

Brian Sheppard, 28, was brought in from New York City to take on the role that many actors pine for their entire lives.

He deliberately avoided watching other versions of “Hamlet.” In fact, he had never seen the play in its entirety, though he has been performing Shakespeare’s works in repertory for many summers for the Plimoth Players, a company that performs period dramas at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass.

“I didn’t want to compare myself with other people,” he said. “There’s a huge weight and expectation that comes with acting the role. This is my chance to have my own version of it.”

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