UMF Student Theatre Celebrates Shakespeare with Performance of Hamlet

The lights dimmed as two guards, Bernardo and Marcellus, emerged on top of the ramparts of the castle Elsinore. Suddenly, the stage floor was blanketed in a bright green fog, as the sentries, now joined by Horatio, bore witness to the ghost of King Hamlet.

Hamlet was one of the UMF’s biggest shows ever produced, and the cast boasted several English majors and one professor. English major Julie Guerra portrayed Laertes, the brother of Ophelia, and Professor Dan Gunn took on the role of Polonius, a chief counsellor of the King and the father of Laertes and Ophelia.

Guerra has been in many shows during her time at UMF, including Wait Until Dark, Letters, and a student directed play called Home Free. Hamlet was her first Shakespeare performance, but she’s been a fan for years.

Laertes and Claudius

English major Julie Guerra as Laertes

“It was senior year high school that I had a really great class with a teacher who loved Shakespeare,” Guerra remarked with a chuckle. “Since then, I’ve really loved Shakespeare too.”

A member of Student Theatre at UMF (STUMF), Guerra knew going into the auditions that she wanted to play the part of Laertes.

“I wanted to get involved with the sword fighting!” she exclaimed. “The combat was weird to learn because I’m not a very angry person, but [after] stepping into the character and learning, it became muscle memory and it was really fun.”

Guerra showcased this combat training particularly well during Laertes’s and Hamlet’s final duel before Claudius and Gertrude. She was also able to demonstrate her understanding of Laertes’s emotions and motives as the poison tipped blade was thrust into Hamlet’s chest, in order to avenge the deaths of Ophelia and Polonius.

Unlike Guerra, Gunn’s first theatre performance experience consisted of scenes from various Shakespeare works with the UMF honors program, directed by Jayne Decker, who also directed Hamlet.

“About 15-20 years ago, Jayne Decker wanted to do some scenes from Shakespeare with the honors program and she thought faculty involvement would be fun,” Gunn said. “[There were] three or four faculty members, the students. I played the part of Hamlet’s Ghost in those days.”

Polonius

Dan Gunn (second from right) as Polonius

In addition to playing Polonius, Gunn served as the dramaturge for the cast. The dramaturge is someone who knows about the play, teaches the cast about the play, and meets individually with actors to go over lines and reflect on their meanings.

“During rehearsal, I would talk to people about lines, or people would ask me questions,” Gunn said. “There was a funny moment; when we rehearsed the part where I die on stage, the actors were struggling with capturing the sense of madness. Jonas [Maines], who played Hamlet, stopped to ask a question. I got up to explain and then laid back down to keep playing dead,” he recalled with a fond smile.

Guerra and Gunn both agreed that performing Hamlet as opposed to simply reading it helped to further their understanding of Shakespeare and the art of theatre as a whole.

“Actually performing it is so much more emotional, less cerebral. Hamlet especially is full of emotional shifts and deep and complicated feelings,” Gunn said. “Teaching [Hamlet] as though it were a poem, I look at it more cerebrally, thinking about the cold art of it, whereas it just seems more connected to feeling in the body with me now since I’ve had the experience of acting some of these parts.”

“I think there is a difference between just reading Shakespeare and performing Shakespeare,” Guerra said. “It is a different view of the work, and you start to love the characters a bit more, especially when you work with them for such a long time.”

In addition to understanding the play on another level, Guerra also appreciated the opportunity to work with professor Gunn outside the classroom.

“Dan Gunn is great; I had a class with him. He would meet with us to learn lines, and then he played my character’s father on stage,” she said. “It was cool to interact with professors in a way that wasn’t super academic. There’s camaraderie in being cast mates as opposed to just seeing each other in class.”

Although Guerra and Gunn stated that their educations in English gave them tools to work with in regards to deciphering Shakespeare’s language, it was still a learning experience for both.

“A lot of [English] majors are into theatre, and I think Hamlet and Shakespeare is what drew them to participate,” Gunn said. “I feel it is an honor to perform Hamlet because of how crucial it has been to the English literature since the 17th century, and I think a lot of English students felt that importance as well.”

“There really isn’t a limit to what English majors can become involved in,” Guerra said. “English majors are pretty open to anything.”

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