What I learned. . .

Everything, actually. How could I not?  It’s Hamlet, after all.

Preparation is everything.  Assemble the best collaborators you can. Cast well and fight for what (and who) you want. Be specific. Ask for as much rehearsal time as the theatre can afford. Trust the material. Really trust the material. Do your homework; be specific; remain open; know the play well so you can lead with confidence (and abandon your bad ideas when they don’t make sense or simply do not work in the way you thought they would); communicate your vision as clearly as possible; remember that you are only as strong as your strongest link and always as weak as your weakest link. Did I mention, be specific?

The first time I directed Hamlet it was with a collection of mostly middle school–aged students that had formed a loosely organized group of young players at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival known as the Black Cygnets. I think our cut was about an hour and a half in length; we performed once, mostly for parents, family friends and company members on a Monday night late in the season on the outdoor Elizabethan stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The next time was several years later at the Kern Shakespeare Festival in Bakersfield, where no one really knew the play was happening and not many people came to see it, with a cast of real adult actors (and twenty years before my next crack at the play at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis).  Perfect ways to get my directorial toes wet and/or slightly immersed in the Hamlet “pool.” So I had a bit of experience with the play, a body of knowledge from having seen any number of productions in the intervening years, and plenty of “seeping/osmosis” time to absorb and consider the script and what I might do with it were I granted another opportunity to work on it. Plus, I was around for Jim Edmondson’s riveting and moving production at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the cut script of which formed the basis for my own at the Rep, and which might have been the most enlightening bit of assistance/acquaintance/preparation of all.

I took the summer off from directing so that I would have adequate prep time, and even though I ended up traveling more than I expected I would during those summer months, I continued to get back to the script any chance I got (numerous “salons” with Hilary Tate at home in Ashland, with whom I always consult and work through scripts by Shakespeare and Shaw any time I’m contracted to direct one of their plays), and had lots of time to think as I drove back and forth across much of the Western United States.

Those travels included a day and a couple of nights in Boise, where Jim Poulos, who played the title role, was working at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.  Other than a fair amount of emails, texts, and phone conversations (and his audition for the part), this was our first chance to settle in with Shakespeare’s words and really get on the same page about the play, the character, and the production.  Because it’s an enormous play in so many respects, we focused on the seven major soliloquies: reading them, talking about them, doing our best to pin down their trajectory within the story, and also getting specific about the element of direct address inherent to dealing with solo monologues in Shakespeare’s plays.  Our time, brief as it was, proved an invaluable launch pad for the work to come – and fortunately, Jim and I have known each other for years, worked together numerous times, and have a trust and communication which was essential to tackling the play and the role.

Jim proved an exemplary leading man, which didn’t come as anything of a surprise.  He was prepared (80% off book at first rehearsal), was flexible in rehearsal, open to ideas, and always – always – generous with his fellow actors. He never played the ‘title role’ card; if he needed something, he asked for it without ever demanding or assuming ‘diva’ status; he stated his ideas and opinions simply and clearly; and he understood from the get-go (because he is that kind of actor) that he needed to drive the play and that the production would benefit from a no-nonsense, non-indulgent, non-lugubrious approach to the role.  Soliloquies needed to be as active as anything else, even when delivering them in utter stillness. As physically dexterous as he is mentally acute and emotionally available, Jim’s Hamlet was a director’s dream – in rehearsal and performance: lithe, physical, deep, funny, risky, dangerous. Could not have done better.

But I was also able to surround Jim with a superb ensemble, and managed the doubling of roles so that our cast size fell within the Rep’s budget restrictions without falling into the “minimalist” sort of production in which actors are constantly reappearing in various guises yet failing to present truly separate, unique identities every time they come on stage.  I was thoughtful in the doubling: the actor playing the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father reappeared as Fortinbras at play’s end, thus bracketing the production with two very different kings played by the same actor; the Player King and Queen doubled as the Gravediggers in Act V. I was able to cast eight students from the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts in “essential extra” roles, so the stage was peopled with courtiers, soldiers, messengers, and attendants to the King and Queen when needed – and I think we were well-served by the sense of ensemble having twenty-some bodies available in staging created and also in not having the actors playing the Ghost, the Gravediggers, or Polonius lurking in the shadows as strangely familiar-looking courtiers, still recognizable to those who might happen to pay attention and notice. So much of a director’s job is to make sure the loopholes are all closed – that there isn’t anything that takes an audience “out” of a production; rather, everything leads the audience deeper into the illusion you’re setting out to create as completely and solidly as possible. 

I think one of the successes of casting the production was clearly demonstrated when Ben Nordstrom appeared late in the play as Osric, the courtier who brings word of Claudius’s wager on a proposed (deadly) duel between Hamlet and Laertes.  Although we’d seen Osric in earlier court scenes where it made sense that he would be present, this was his first speaking appearance, and to have as skilled an actor as Ben creating the role was an excellent reminder to always pay attention to the “smaller” roles.  As with Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing or another Friar (John, in Romeo and Juliet), Osric can be something of a throw-away part; and too often the necessary exposition the role carries can be lost in a less skilled performance or by directors who are hastening toward the end of the play and not paying close attention to the character’s function, which is all the more crucial coming tardily in the action of the story.

Hamlet was also another great reminder of the benefit of working with familiar collaborators whom you know and trust.  To have a design team comprised of people who have developed shorthand together over a series of production experiences helps mitigate the natural compression of time and resources involved in any theatrical endeavor.  And because we came together early in the process – and because I think I provided the right information to the design team in advance (not so much as to straight-jacket them, but enough to point them in a clear direction), we were able to develop a compelling and unified approach to this particular production. Not knowing exactly what period in which I wanted to set the play, I was able to offer a range of images and ideas about what, for me, the play had to say, and what were some of its basic truths and essences: revenge story, ghost story, political story, love story; Scandinavian rather than Mediterranean; winter rather than summer; dark rather than light – and, if possible, snow, snow, snow.  Working from these ideas and plenty of the designers’ own, we honed in on our approach, stripping away what seemed or became unnecessary, so that action moved as fluidly as possible and storytelling was always paramount as I think it must be when you’re directing plays by Shakespeare.

Working with Michael Ganio on the set design was particularly rewarding, as although this was not our first time collaborating (we’ve worked together frequently, and done many plays by Shakespeare since first working on a production of King Lear at PCPA Theaterfest in the ‘90’s), it was his first Hamlet.  So we started at the beginning, and whenever things got too complicated, found ways to pare back and cut close to the bone.  Ultimately, we used two chairs, an array of hand props, an elevator to create Ophelia’s grave (one of the questions Michael and I have learned to ask each other is “what’s the Act IV or Act V surprise that’s likely to trip us up?” In Macbeth it was Birnam Wood, and so we’ve learned to begin the design process with those stickier challenges rather than leave them to the end when we’re too overloaded or weighted down to pay proper attention.  It’s the designer’s version of Osric, in a sense.) – and best of all, I think, no arras behind which Polonius would conceal himself.  Just part of a permanent, leaning and foreboding wall on the set, which seemed to work fine.

My aesthetic when it comes to Shakespeare set design is that what you need most of all is a platform for storytelling (which was, after all, the chief feature of Shakespeare’s playhouse) and that usually less is more. It’s wonderful to work with a designer who not only agrees but is able to embody that principle in the dynamic, helpful, and meaningful ways in which Michael always works.  He’s a designer who can work practically and metaphorically at the same time, considers the script carefully, asks probing questions, has consistently unique  responses to the play -- and for him, details are everything, even (especially?) in the seemingly simplest of designs.

Having seen productions of Hamlet in which the Act V duel between Laertes and Hamlet felt tacked-on , under-rehearsed, under-developed, and somewhat haphazard, I insisted that we start staging the combat from the get-go.  Fortunately, Paul Dennhardt, an accomplished fight director of whom I’d heard but with whom I’d never worked, was available and close by: Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, where he is on faculty at Illinois State University. Paul joined us toward the end of our first week of rehearsal and was able to return every weekend throughout the rehearsal period, often with assistants in tow. We also made sure that almost every rehearsal day started with an hour of fight review, under the watchful eye of Fight Captain and cast member Christopher Gerson, who played Horatio and was, therefore, on stage every night during the Hamlet-Laertes duel and all the more able to keep his eye on the staging throughout the run. I wanted the duel to be a fencing match (it sometimes is; sometimes not) between two of the most accomplished athletes in Denmark (if not Europe).  I also was convinced it needed to be lightning fast, to have a story arc all its own, and to lead to as visceral a denouement for the production as possible.  I loved it the day that Jim and Christopher really struggled for the final drink of the poisoned cup, scrambling across the floor to be the first to get to the cup and prevent the other friend from drinking its contents . . .  I wanted as messy a sense of chaos, horror, and tragedy as we could accomplish so that Fortinbras’ lines in the final moments of the play made sense.  I believe the play devolves from order to chaos, and I felt strongly that the arc of the play as well as the final scene should reflect that.

The lessons that Hamlet has to offer are endless.  I don’t know if I’ll get to experience those lessons again as a director and discover a whole new raft of them, but I know if this is my last shot at directing the play I will go out knowing I delivered a compelling and successful production for the Rep’s audiences.  The reviews were more than kind; sale of single tickets surpassed its goal halfway into the run; and everyone who saw the play that I talked to was lavish in their praise. I was lucky in every single instance with the production, and owe much to Steve Woolf, Mark Bernstein, Seth Gordon, Edward Coffield, the entire staff of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, my sensational design team, and the talented, accomplished ensemble of actors who trusted me, brought their ‘A’ game to the table, and worked so hard to fulfill the challenges of this deep, engrossing, funny, and very moving play.  

Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is one I’ve understood for a long time but am always reminded of whenever I work on one of his plays: Shakespeare requires us to summon forth all we’ve got – spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, physically, psychologically. Unless you’re ready to be vulnerable and to have a full-body/mind/heart experience, don’t go there.  I couldn’t have asked for a better refresher course on this principle than getting to work on this particular production of this truly great play.


Rep Theatre of St. Louis

October, 2017

“It has taken the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis 51 years to get around to Hamlet.  It was worth waiting for.

“Under the direction of Paul Mason Barnes, the dynamic production that just opened on the Browning Mainstage flies by, thrumming with nerve and keeping us in suspense, even though we know what has to happen.

“And as the Danish prince, Jim Poulos gives us the kind of performance that we go to the Rep in hope of seeing: supple, articulate, heartbreaking.

“Barnes keeps the action entirely clear.  Do not minimize the importance of diction (uniformly excellent) nor of Barnes’ impressive visual cues.

“This production, coming in at under three hours, is short by Hamlet standards, long by others.  But the play speeds along, carrying its audience on wings of action and poetry.  This production lets us soar with Shakespeare.”

     Judith Newark

     St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents a uniquely engaging and compelling presentation of one of Shakespeare’s finest plays with their current production of Hamlet. So many great lines that have become a part of our language are present here, and it’s really amazing to think that the Rep hasn’t staged this show until now.  I think that just makes it all the more special, especially since director Paul Mason Barnes, who has an undeniable talent for interpreting the Bard, brings his vision to the project.  Purists may quibble with it, but I found this staging utterly remarkable.

“Barnes delivers a well-crafted and fresh version of Hamlet that’s very nicely paced. His work with the actors and actresses pays off in performances that are all superbly conceived and executed.  Michael Ganio’s scenic design brings scope while remaining distinctly stark, with a few key elements for delineation, and Dorothy Marshall Englis’ costumes are an eclectic mix of styles from different eras, because this is, after all, a ‘play for the ages.’  Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting design adds immeasurably to the overall atmosphere, and so does Barry G. Funderburg’s composition and sound design.  Paul Dennhardt delivers marvelous work as fight director.

“The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has given us a terrific production of Hamlet that should not be missed.  This is a classic tragedy brilliantly realized for a modern audience to enjoy.”

     Chris Gibson

     Broadway World

“Less melancholy Dane and more merry prankster is how Hamlet’s madness comes across in the first time ever production of Shakespeare’s classic at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.  It works beautifully . . .  thanks to the talents of Jim Poulos as Hamlet and a strong supporting cast.  It all starts with a vision and Rep stalwart director, Paul Mason Barnes, who has directed Shakespeare and others on the Rep stage . . . decided to make this “Hamlet” the story of an Everyman surrounded by characters from every walk of life.  No distinctions carved in stone but a mix of traditional and nontraditional in both viewpoint and presentation.

“The design team continues the vision of Barnes with the eclectic costumes from Dorothy Marshall Englis that span the eras to help make this “Everyman” concept work within the parameters of this production.  The spare but impressive set design by Michael Ganio opens the play to provide several acting areas but letting the words of Shakespeare dominate the proceedings. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lights provide the proper mood as does the Barry G. Funderburg effective sound design.  A special nod to fight director Paul Dennhardt as director Paul Mason Barnes has broken with tradition again bringing a “mask and vest” sword fight with points until the final, tragic moment and then choosing a more sweeping method of dealing with the deaths at play’s end.

“. . . the Rep’s Hamlet is an entertaining ride that will surprise you with a feel like no other production you’ve seen.  The tragedy is still there but the spirit of the play has taken a sharp turn providing lighter moments and unusual staging.”

     Steve Allen

     Stage Door St. Louis

“Unapologetically dramatic and thrilling in its pursuit of justice, Hamlet finally arrives at the most prestigious theater in St. Louis.  It’s his first visit ever to the Repertory Theatre, in 51 seasons. And he’s alive and kicking, under the direction of Paul Mason Barnes.

“Which is not to say this newest Hamlet, Jim Poulos, is unsubtle or overly dramatic – he knows when to go deep inside, and when to come out fighting as well, though it’s more often a war of nerves.  But it’s also a pleasure to hear Shakespeare’s great introspective monologs flow beautifully from his mouth in quieter moments. Still fitted with a college boy’s bawdy sense of humor and awestruck mind, this Hamlet is (of course) also replete with a young man’s idealism.  Every new turning point in the plot presents him with a new moral landscape.  He also gets in a remarkably full repertoire of sexual jokes, more or less wthin the bounds of the script.

“To discuss what else is different in this newest Hamlet, and how it recreates the meaning of the play and our perceptions of the great tragedy, let’s start by looking at Larry Paulsen as Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes.  This is not the comically oafish character Hamlet describes, but rather a dignified courtier, sincerely concerned about his daughter and son, and with the fulfillment of the will of the new king.

“It is sometimes called the greatest play in the English language, and it may well be. Every time I see a great new version, I’m sure of it.  And I’m sure of it all over again now.

“But, as with all new productions, employing a new director and new cast members, the balance is changed, in all things.  In this new production . . . Hamlet is also the story of missing fathers, or rather, of the power of the father by subtraction — it always was for Hamlet, whose own dad (in ghost form, played by Jeffrey Cummings) here seems coolly radiant and tragically magnificent, stalking spectrally about the castle, very obviously dead too soon for the young prince, in many ways.

“And Polonius’ death leaves a big hole in his own family’s life. Following the accidental murder of this nobler Polonius, the sudden destruction of his family seems even more devastating.  It’s something of a plague, here, absent fathers: even before the play, Hamlet’s father has killed the father of warring young Prince Fortinbras of Norway. And scenic designer Michael Ganio’s giant pillar, up-center on stage, seems a metaphor for any good father, lightly holding up great girders, athwart, even higher overhead.

“The ending is also strangely, unexpectedly horrifying – it is palpably the fall of a great house of Europe after all – but whether it’s the reverse-staging (from normal), with the king and queen downstage, facing up; or the inexorable hand of fate swift at work; or perhaps the sudden, noble camaraderie of Hamlet and Laertes (splendid Carl Howell) late in their exciting duel, the shape of things is altered, and the tone is likewise, humanly, more terrible.

“Which brings us to Michael James Reed as the latest Claudius.  There’s something in his performance (and in Mr. Barnes’ direction) that’s invisibly clever and menacing and suspicious, which gleefully unbundles in our heads as his performance proceeds.  Here, in self-consciously grand gold brocade, like a monarch who must remind everyone he is a legitimate ruler, Mr. Reed is also the great clockwork of conspiracy – and Hamlet the impetuous, feisty little mouse that runs up inside to wreak havoc.  Intermission comes at the precise moment when an outraged Claudius stops the play-within-the-play, exposing his guilt.

“There’s a whole lot of invention in this particular prince, making him deeply lyrical, but also a reckless, threatening sprig of a man-child. And the investment of character and circumstance all across the stage (in just under three hours) is highly impressive. For Mr. Poulos, in the title role, it is the kind of huge canvas that an actor dreams of, all his younger days. With the help of director Barnes, he takes full advantage of the opportunity, sometimes as a sort of Jackson Pollock, painting the stage with chaos.  But just as often, in the quieter moments, he’s a Vermeer, a master of psychological clarity and quiet perspective.”

     Richard Green

     Talkin’ Broadway

“The Repertory Theater of St. Louis turns a finely tuned, well-seasoned ear to Shakespeare’s enduringly popular tragedy about power, madness, and betrayal among the Danes. The dramatic story, arguably one of the Bard’s best, is well known and often performed, though rarely at this length. For the first production of Hamlet in the company’s 51-year history, the commitment to story, action, and dialogue is successful, and clearly conveyed from the first moment to Fortinbras’ closing eulogy.

“Mounting a full-length production of Hamlet is a significant undertaking, even for a theater with the resources and experience of the Rep. Director Paul Mason Barnes and scenic designer Michael Ganio work well together, filling the mostly bare, multi-level stage with chases, movement, and a gallery of courtiers observing key scenes that are smartly countered by small, intimate moments in tight focus. The effect is particularly dramatic when complemented by a single, statuesque column and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s stunning lighting. Attention is shifted and mood is altered effectively, while Dorothy Marshall Englis’ costumes ruffle and furl and snap into place with appropriate drama. Every detail feels designed to emphasize the sound of Hamlet and it works to glorious effect. The show is an absolute treat for the ears.

“The articulation and interpretation of Hamlet is strikingly crisp and contextually motivated. Each actor conveys clear understanding of each word’s meaning and potential consequences, and the sense of courtly manners is present even in the graveyard.

“Barnes clearly understands the show as both literature and drama and it’s evident that a lot of thought was paid to interpretation and meaning during the rehearsal process. The approach ensures that the production is lively and fast-paced without sacrificing any elements of storytelling.

“The Rep’s stirring production of Hamlet . . . is a thoroughly engrossing dive into the language of Shakespeare with active, beautifully crafted scenes that are likely to have your heart racing.”

     Tina Farmer


“The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is embarking on an enormous task by presenting Hamlet for the first time ever.  And, if you are a fellow lover of all things Shakespeare, what a ride you are going to take at this show!

“There is no extra fluff or filler here: just a beautiful, well-delivered show that will remind you why Shakespeare will remain immortal as the best of the best.  Congratulations and thank you to director Paul Mason Barnes, and to the entre cast and crew, for creating a suspenseful, emotional journey I’d waited a few decades to take.”

     Jacqueline McGarry, St. Louis Limelight Magazine

     St. Louis Limelight Magazine

“Barnes previously has helmed a fresh and invigorating version of A Comedy of Errors at the Rep as well as a technically spectacular rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a compelling Macbeth, presentations that garnered eight St. Louis Theater Circle Awards.

“Barnes’ collaborators on Hamlet include Dorothy Marshall Englis and her independent costume design, which features players decked out in clothing and styles that seem to cover wide-ranging eras. As she writes in her program notes, ‘So when asked what period we are in, the final solution is that we are here, now, but also evoking the past.’ Therefore, this Hamlet is part 5th century, part 21st century and parts in between.

“Scenic designer Michael Ganio observes in his own notes that, more or less, the play’s the thing and that the focus should be on The Bard’s dialogue. To that end, he writes, ‘I don’t want to overwhelm our sense of sight with highly visual, complicated scenery.’  He doesn’t. His set is sophisticated in its simplicity, anchored by an imposing pillar and supplemented with background scaffolding.

“Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz adds some moody lighting, accentuated in the ethereal ghost scenes, while composer Barry Funderburg contributes a hauntingly effective sound design. The drama’s climactic sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes is highly accomplished by its performers thanks to Paul Dennhardt’s fight direction.

“As to the play itself, Barnes squeezes in a copious amount of the angst and philosophical musings that fill hour hours in Shakespeare’s most famous work, with this rendition running three hours over two acts, including intermission.

“Barnes keeps the Rep’s version of Hamlet moving briskly and he is aided by several superior performances.  He utilizes all of the exits and entrances to the stage available, including aisles in the theater maximizing performance space.”

     Mark Bretz

     Ladue News

Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play. It’s certainly oft-studied and oft-performed. Still, in its 51 years of existence in St. Louis, the Rep had never actually staged it, until now. And now, the Hamlet they’re staging is not exactly what you may expect. Produced by much of the team behind the Rep’s excellent A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a few years ago, this Hamlet is fresh, immediate, and characterized by a dynamic, highly physical performance from its leading actor.

“The approach taken by director Paul Mason Barnes for this production is decidedly fast-paced and physical, particularly in the casting of Hamlet himself.  Having previously played Puck so memorably in the Rep’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (Jim) Poulos brings us a particularly puckish portrayal of the Melancholy Dane. His Hamlet is thoughtful, but he’s also confrontational, witty, and full of dynamic energy, challenging and baffling Claudius and crew with his actions and body language as much as, if not more than, his words. It’s a brilliantly visceral performance.

“It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry support from the entire ensemble.

“Visually, this production is notable for its stark, imposing minimalist set designed by Michael Ganio. Consisting of some scaffolding, an ominous leaning wall, and a series of plain square pedestals all arranged around a large looming column, the set serves well in facilitating the often urgent staging of this play. The fantastic lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, the sumptuously detailed 19th Century-influenced costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis, and the superb sound design and atmospheric original music by Barry G. Funderburg all contribute to the overall immediate, intense atmosphere.

“It could be easy to ask why it’s taken so long for the Rep to produce Hamlet, but it’s also easy to say now that I can’t imagine how they could have done it better.  Particularly in its casting and fast-paced staging, this is a Hamlet that is confrontational and majoring on emotion, with a truly remarkable title performance at its heart.  It’s a theatrical triumph for the Rep.”

     Michelle Kenyon

     Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts

“It’s a rather different Hamlet that’s up and running at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. It’s not weird – no Hamlet-on-Mars – but the pacing feels different, zippier, Hamlet is played differently and the visuals are anywhere from great to downright stunning.

“Paul Mason Barnes, no stranger to the Rep, has brought together and directed a fine team. The set, by Michael Ganio is stunning with its immense single Corinthian column, snow falling softly to the rear, the whole far more complex than the eye recognizes at first. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’ lighting strokes the stage, almost flirting with it. Then there are the costumes. Dorothy Marshall Englis either had a really good time with this one or a nervous breakdown. They’re handsome and fascinating and totally timeless, with modern references and riffs on standard things.

“This is a show that can sweep an audience away.  Hamlet is, I think, always supposed to be disconcerting, and, as always can be done with Shakespeare, here we have a new way to be transported.”

     Ann Pollack

     St. Louis Eats and Drinks