A Mighty Collaboration Indeed— Cambrian Players’ Hamlet

Review by Michael Sobota, Photos by Matt Goertz

“There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet (Jordan Blaxill) to Rosencrantz (Susie Murray) and Guildenstern (Michael Ellsworth).

Tennessee Williams, in an essay about relationships in the theatre, said that whether a playwright likes it or not, “a writer for the stage must face the fact that the making of a play is, finally, a collaborative venture.” What he means is that a theatre production takes many hands and minds together to bring the play before an audience.

Let’s start there. In their program for Hamlet, Cambrian Players lists a cast of 21 actors (playing 27 roles), a director and stage management team of three, and a technical, administrative and marketing team of dozens more (they list some 23 specific categories of responsibilities under the broad title of production team, most with multiple participants). All collaborate to bring this production of Hamlet to Thunder Bay audiences. It’s some mighty collaboration, indeed. And for this I say bravo.

Then let’s go to the church. A decade or so ago, Cambrian Players presented Romeo & Juliet in this same (First-Wesley United) church. Most of the staging takes place up front and to the side of the main sanctuary, with rows of pews fanning out in wide curves to the back of the main auditorium. I will quickly insert that when you go to see the production, go early. There are bad seats. Sit in the front row. This is the best place to be for both seeing and hearing. The front of the church provides multi-layered levels for action and numerous doors plus floor level entrances and exits. Director Eva Burkowski uses all those levels and doors well, keeping the action in the production moving swiftly and with purpose.  

Another well done task by Burkowski is her judicious cutting of Shakespeare’s text. Hamlet is the longest of his plays – an uncut performance might run to four hours. The Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet I saw recently, in a telecast from The Barbican Theatre in London, lasted three and a half hours. This Hamlet, with a fifteen minute intermission, runs just over two hours. If you are unfamiliar with the text, you likely won’t notice the omissions.

I saw the production on opening night (February 28). Any community theatre production with a cast this large, performing in an unfamiliar space, will have strengths and weaknesses and an unevenness that will improve over the run of the play. Here are some of the strengths. Alex Jecchinis, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, conveys the weight of the play immediately in both his deep, sonorous voice and matching physical stature. He later doubles as the Player King, with equal skill and engagement. Norman McDougall’s Polonius is refreshing, logical, and almost, but not quite serious, in his flusteredly inquisitions and deductions. Until her mad scene late in the play, Bailey Giroux is a stunning Ophelia. Giroux conveys Ophelia’s waiting and wanting with a haunting clarity. Jennifer Jones brings just the right tone of experiential wisdom and blue collar wit to the Gravedigger.  

The role of Hamlet, if not acting’s Mount Everest, certainly lies within the Himalayan range for any actor’s skills. Jordan Blaxill climbs onto this mountain without any visible fear. It is a brave and courageous and athletic performance. His climatic sword fight with Chris Jason (Laertes) is both brilliantly staged and energetically delivered. Both Blaxall and Jason become noble combatants under fight choreographer, Warren McGoey.

But the moment on stage that gripped me, the moment that I urge you to go see this production for, comes from Hilke Grunys. Grunys is one of Cambrians’ elegant veteran actors. She commands all the rich colours of Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Late in the play, she enters in a daze. She almost stumbles but finds her center and then tells us about Ophelia’s death, from drowning. She stands still, without any histrionics, and just tells us what happened. It is the emotional and theatrical heart, and take away image of this production.

Hamlet will continue performances at the First-Wesley United Church, 130 Brodie Street North through March 3, and again on March 7-10.  Performances start at 7:30 pm.