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This has been a big year for Michael Urie. He’s had two huge successes in New York recently and, at least according to the New York Times, he’s the new comedic genius of the American theatre. I’ve known Michael ever since I taught him at Juilliard, and as I’ve watched him blossom I have been struck by the depth and emotional intelligence of his acting, the serious side alongside the playful, physical, comedic side. You need all of those tools to play Hamlet, and Michael has them. I also told myself that I would direct Hamlet again if Michael was available, and so here we are.
While I was thinking about this play over the past year and a half, the world changed. It’s not just happening here in the United States, but all over the world—people are seeking power in strongmen. There is the serious possibility of a return to autocratic governments in a manner that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago.
I’ve done this play twice, and I already knew the family relationships that lie at the heart of Hamlet are crucial to the piece. This time, however, I found myself thinking anew about the politics of the world in the play. Now, Hamlet is not a political play, but the situation in the play is a political one. This is a play where everybody spies on everyone else, a society where trust is meaningless, in large part because there is a cover-up going on of a very serious crime that has been committed. Hamlet comes home to encounter a new regime with everyone either over-praising Claudius or remaining wary of him. The precariousness of his rule has led to a kind of paranoid surveillance state.
This poisonous atmosphere positively surrounds the play, and it has a great deal to do with the tremendously mysterious emotional life that develops inside of Hamlet. One of the reasons he puts on his “antic disposition” is that it provides a way for the spied-upon to become a spy himself. After all, if you’re crazy people might say more things in front of you than they would otherwise, and they might also tolerate you behaving in ways that would otherwise seem quite strange. The madness, of course, also means something else. It is central to Shakespeare’s extraordinary study of a disturbed consciousness, of an amazingly intelligent mind that is deeply troubled.
This is one of the greatest and most complex plays ever written, a play that I believe also says something profound about politics. In this context the play-within-the-play is quite important. It is at once a family drama of the most powerful kind, lying at the center of this play, and also the most explosive kind of political theatre. I am taking it seriously, as something Shakespeare might write today. For all these reasons, I have decided that this play works best for our purposes in modern dress. We are setting it in an unnamed country. It may feel all too familiar.
Hamlet is now playing through March 4 at Sidney Harman Hall. Click here for more info.