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The Play's the Thing: SOA Students Perform 'Hamlet' at Riverside Church

By Kristin Sterling

Dustin Helmer, standing, (back to front) Elenna Stauffer, Leah Foulke, Nathan Blew, John Bogar, Carol Ellis rehearse a scene from 'Hamlet.'

"Man delights not me: no, nor woman neither," Hamlet announces early on in his play. But audiences may be delighted by both, when they see the unusual School of the Arts acting students' thesis production of Shakespeare's tragedy. Directed by LAByrinth Theater director/producer John Gould Rubin, this "Hamlet" has not just one, but seven different students playing the melancholy Dane, and four of them are women.

Hamlet, which opened Jan. 17 and runs through Feb. 1, at the Theatre of the Riverside Church on Claremont Avenue , is the culmination of the actors' training at Columbia . But because more than half of the cast of 17 graduate students are women, and there are only two substantive female roles in the play (Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, and the sad, mad Ophelia), director Rubin decided to create a "fractured" "Hamlet," bringing the audience into the very depths of his psyche. He manages that by using multiple Hamlets, occasionally even having more than one Hamlet on stage at the same time, bringing to life the character's own internal struggles. "It allows the audience to see [the depths of the character] more completely if there is more than one Hamlet," said Rubin, who in his role as a producer, is moving "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" to Broadway.

In the first several rehearsals, Rubin had the cast sit in a circle and take turns reading the play aloud. Instead of tryouts, he asked the students to pick their favorite moments in the play. "I cast the play based on what students requested," explained Rubin. "It's not so much about gender, but rather how it is played."

While somewhat unconventional, the students liked his methodology. "Everyone got at least one moment that they are proud of and that has meaning for them," said Elenna Stauffer, SOA '04, who is playing one of the Hamlets, Rosencrantz, and the ghost of Hamlet's father. "It was also interesting to hear the play without investment in the parts -- to think about the play as a whole. If I were originally cast as a Hamlet, I would only look at the play through his eyes and not see the whole picture."

The production of "Hamlet" under Rubin's direction is the culmination of a collaboration between the School of the Arts and the LAByrinth Theater Company. The company, which began in 1992 and is currently in residence at the Public Theater in Greenwich Village, encompasses a diverse ensemble of 76 theater artists and produces works relevant to the issues faced by the many cultures found in New York City. LAByrinth has produced more than 30 new plays, including: "Stopless" by David Deblinger, "Where's My Money"? and "Dirty Story" by John Patrick Shanley, In Arabia, "We'd All Be Kings," "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "Our Lady of 121 st Street."

SOA students practice their sword fighting technique.

Throughout the fall award-winning actors, directors and writers from LAByrinth, including Stephen Adly Guirgis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Keith Reddin and Rubin taught master classes for graduate acting students in the School's theatre arts division. Classes focused on acting, directing, producing, writing songs and plays, and improv techniques.

"The master classes brought the unique spirit of LAByrinth to students who are about to enter the professional world, encouraging [artists] to create their own opportunities. You don't wait for business to come to you," said Rubin.

For the students, the master classes were the highlight of the fall semester. "They all had practical applications -- it was like giving us a map," said Carol Ellis, SOA '04. "In Rubin's class on producing he explained how to organize people, put together a piece, get on your feet and go. He addressed the biggest mystery -- how to go from an idea to fruition. It made me realize that it is in our grasp."

"I love the energy and creativity of LAByrinth, but most, I love that they encourage their members to be able to do everything -- not only to act but to write, direct and produce," said Frank Mihelich, SOA'04. "I realize that if I am ever out of 'artistic' work, it is ultimately my fault. If there is no work out there I can create my own work. I can write a one-man show or direct a play. It's a very empowering feeling and it's what LAByrinth and Columbia are about."

Remaining performances of Hamlet are scheduled for: January 22 at 7:00 p.m, January 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 at 8:00 p.m, and January 24, 25, 31 and February 1 at 2:00 p.m. Performances are held at the Theatre of The Riverside Church, 91 Claremont Avenue between 120 th and 121 st Streets. General admission is $15; $10 for students. For credit card reservations call 212-870-6784.


Published: Jan 20, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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