REVIEW: Theatre@First delivers a compelling and haunting ‘Hamlet’

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, William Shakespeare’s work has garnered the most screen adaptations of any author in history in any language.  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet boasts the most screen adaptations, but it’s hard to imagine Hamlet being far behind.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet has taken the stage and screen by storm from looser adaptations such as Disney’s stunning The Lion King in musical, animated, and live action form to Shakespeare on the Common to several films starring everyone from Laurence Olivier to Mel Gibson to Benedict Cumberbatch.  Why?  It’s a thrilling classic tale beloved by many about love, betrayal, and retribution with a haunting twist.

Theatre@FIrst Hamlet cast Johanna Bobrow

The cast of Theatre@First’s ‘Hamlet’ Photo courtesy of Johanna Bobrow/Theatre@First

Directed purposefully by Elizabeth Hunter, Theatre@First continues Shakespeare’s Hamlet through Saturday, November 23 at Unity Somerville in Somerville, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Not a bad seat in the house as the audience gathered in Unity Somerville’s church basement for Theatre@First’s Hamlet.  The show is an immersive experience as the production expands beyond the stage and cast members can enter from anywhere in the venue.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about a Prince of Denmark who discovers his mother has married his uncle after his father has been murdered.  An urgent message inspires Hamlet to believe “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Theatre@First’s Hamlet is a stylish, compelling drama that boasts some iridescent and impressive special effects as a translucent figure paces from a mysterious location.  It is not revealed which actor portrays that particular figure, but his moving and affecting presence is a highlight of the production.

Theatre@First Hamlet Laertes Nathan Phillip Andrew Harrington as Polonius and Evelyne Cardella Ophelia Johanna Bobrow

Clowning…. Nathan Phillip Johnson as Laertes, Andrew Harrington as Polonius and Evelyne Cardella as Ophelia Photo courtesy of Johanna Bobrow/Theatre@First

The show also blends the contemporary with the historical through its more casual tone and costume choices while Shakespeare’s alluring text and action sequences remain the same.  Carolyn Jones’s and Katie Caroll’s costume design nods to the late Middle Ages setting in Elsinore, Denmark while also boasting a contemporary flair.  For example, Hatem Adell portrays Hamlet wearing stone washed jeans and a crown on his t-shirt while Gertrude, depicted by Ron Lacey, wears a gown more faithful to the historical time period.  Makeup artists Meg Boeni, Mack Caroll, and their assistants did an extraordinary job transforming the cast into their respective roles.

Hamlet features a capable cast that occasionally engages the audience.  The dialogue can be a bit rushed at times in its conversational tone which lessens the gravitas of Shakespeare’s eloquent text.  Andrew Harrington is an unforgettable presence as Polonius.  Wearing a beard and a bow tie, Harrington has natural comic timing with a distinctive voice and lighthearted demeanor.  A bit of a scene stealer, he humorously engages the audience with his offhanded and frank observations while offering wisdom and insight to his children.

Theatre@First Hamlet Hatem Adell and Evelyne Cardella Ophelia Johanna Bobrow

Evelyne Cardella as Ophelia and Hatem Adell as Hamlet Photo courtesy of Johanna Bobrow/Theatre@First

Evelyn Cardella glows as Ophelia with a wide smile, bright eyed virtue, and complete infatuation with Hamlet.  Playful and charming, Cardella has a sweet chemistry with Nathan Phillip Johnson as her brother, Laertes and Andrew Harrington as their warm and wise father, Polonius.  Cardella navigates the character with vulnerability and heartfelt poignancy as her emotions turn on a dime.

Theatre@First Hamlet Nathan Philip Johnson as Laertes and Myra Hope Eskridge as Claudius Johanna Bobrow

Nathan Phillip Johnson as Laertes and Myra Hope Eskridge as Claudius Photo courtesy of Johanna Bobrow/Theatre@First

Hatem Adell certainly has exacted the alarming rage expected of Hamlet in the face of betrayal.  Adell delivers the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy with finesse.  He also excels at Hamlet’s darkly playful demeanor, especially in a powerful scene alone with Ophelia.  Nathan Phillip Johnson also gives a memorable performance as valiant and forthright Laertes, infusing a natural charisma in each scene.

Myra Hope Eskridge as Claudius delivers a suave poker face, but lacks the devious nature expected of the character.  Claudius is a calculating character and leaves little room for sympathy.  A brief exchange with Laertes later in the production showed just a glimpse of Claudius’s true nature.

Hamlet is not complete without the appearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, portrayed with fresh humor by Chantelle Marshall and Julia Kennedy respectively.  They make a seeming pair of jolly, dimwitted bookends as Hamlet’s childhood friends, dressed identically and interchangeably.  However, they are more than meets the eye.

Theatre@First Hamlet Hatem Adell Rosencrantz Chantelle Marshall and Guildenstern Julia Kennedy Johanna Bobrow

Hatem Adell as Hamlet joined by Chantelle Marshall as Rosencrantz and Julia Kennedy as Guildenstern Photo courtesy of Johanna Bobrow/Theatre@First

Get thee to Theatre@First’s final performances of Hamlet through Saturday, November 23 at Unity Somerville, 6 William Street in Somerville, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information, tickets, and how to support Theatre@First.

Flutist Sarah Paysnick delves into Grand Harmonie’s rollicking ‘March Madness’ concerts

For a musician, choosing the right instrument is the key to success.  For Grand Harmonie flutist and co-founder Sarah Paysnick, family and Sesame Street played a big part in her choosing the right one.  When a group of successful musicians got together to pursue something new and exciting, the innovative and eclectic music ensemble, Grand Harmonie was born.

Grand Harmonie group pic

Grand Harmonie in action Photo courtesy of Sarah Paysnick

Grand Harmonie will deliver March Madness, two exciting and inventive concerts that mixes a little bit of everything.  Featuring conductor Scott Allen Jarrett and soprano Jacquelyn Stucker with horn by Yoni Kahn, March Madness kicks off on Friday, March 24 at Arts at the Armory in Somerville, Massachusetts at 7:30 p.m.  On Sunday, March 26, March Madness will take the stage at the Second Church of Newton in West Newton, Massachusetts at 3 p.m.

Grand Harmonie Scott Allen Jarrett conductor

Grand Harmonie conductor Scott Allen Jarrett Photo courtesy of Scott Allen Jarrett

Sarah Paysnick discusses her music career, Grand Harmonie’s educational outreach, the excitement behind Grand Harmonie, and a closer look into March Madness.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Jeanne Denizard:  What first sparked your interest in music and what inspired you to pursue it as a music career?

Sarah Paysnick:  In kindergarten, many of my friends started learning piano.  They would teach me what they were learning, so I begged my mom for piano lessons. I remember wanting to quit after a short time, but my mom told me I had to finish the year. A few years later, many of my friends started learning string instruments.  I have a cousin my age that played the violin and she’d teach me when we got together. When I told my mom I also wanted violin lessons, she said that I have two cousins who play the violin and I should pick something else. Watching Bob on Sesame Street and because another cousin was learning it, I decided on the flute.

In 4th grade, when asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said I wanted to be a cantor because Judaism and music were important to me.  I didn’t have proper training as a singer.  Something told me, over the next few years, it would exclusively become a music career even though Judaism is still important to me. I never really thought about doing anything outside of music, though my music path has taken me in a variety of directions.  Ultimately, it led me to historical performance on flutes and teaching piano to children.

JD:  How did you become a founding member of Grand Harmonie and what do you enjoy most about this group?

SP:  I knew Yoni Kahn, our horn player and soloist for this concert!  With Yoni Kahn and a couple of other founding members, we were interested in starting something new and exciting. Though my favorite music to perform falls a bit earlier than Grand Harmonie’s core repertoire, I am constantly inspired by my colleagues who push me every day to be a better musician and honored to be an organizing member of the kind of ensemble people enjoy working with. Everyone has such a positive, generous attitude and it’s infectious!

Yoni Kahn Horn

Yani Kahn, horn Photo courtesy of Grand Harmonie

JD:  Grand Harmonie is very versatile and can transform from a symphony orchestra to an opera orchestra, or even become a chamber ensemble.  Is the unexpected part of what sets Grand Harmonie apart from other groups?

SP:  Yes, Grand Harmonie is a bit of a moving target.  People attempt to put us into a box and we don’t fit into one.  Every performance is different, but it also makes anything possible!

JD:  Grand Harmonie will be touring through Somerville and Newton on March 24 and 26 for March Madness.  Is this Grand Harmonie’s first time performing March Madness?  Where did the idea come from?

SP:  This is our first time doing this performance as well as splitting up the movements of a symphony and sprinkling them throughout a concert. In the 19th century, performances were quite different than they are today. Maybe a full symphony wasn’t performed or it was performed in its entirety but not straight through.  Perhaps a small chamber ensemble gave listeners a break from the big symphonic sound or a soprano would delight everyone with her beautiful voice.

Grand Harmonie Jacquelyn Stucker Soprano

Jacquelyn Stucker, soprano for March Madness Photo courtesy of Jacquelyn Stucker

These concerts were a social event and audiences didn’t remain silent as they think they are expected to today. Grand Harmonie wants to break the tension and allow people to clap when they want to, explore the space around them, and enjoy the concert without fear of getting stared down if they clap at the wrong moment or make a noise during the music.

On Friday night, the cash bar at the Somerville Armory will be open all night. Through a generous donation from Aeronaut Brewing Company, the first 30 ticket purchasers will receive one free beer!  On Sunday in Newton, we encourage people to relax and enjoy themselves, but the concert will not include alcohol and will be a more traditional performance.

JD:  This concert will be a particularly intimate and uplifting concert experience since it will take place in-the-round. Additionally, Grand Harmonie will deliver classical pieces in an entirely unique and rollicking way. Putting something like that together must have been a lot of fun.

SP:  Friday’s show is a really exciting experiment in how to make a “classical” concert more accessible and we can’t wait to experience it with our audience! Sunday’s show will be more traditional with the audience in pews and the orchestra in front, but we still expect it will be a rollicking good time!

JD:  For March Madness, Grand Harmonie weaves Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber into one big concert.  You have a unique way of breaking up Beethoven’s First Symphony during this “in the round” concert experience.

SP:  It may sound unique to split up a symphony today but this was not unusual in the 19th century! Sometimes even a single movement was chosen for a particular program.

JD:  Grand Harmonie also participates in educational outreach.  Please tell me about that.

SP:  Grand Harmonie has given master classes at the Longy School of Music at Bard College, MIT, and Harvard, among others. We have also given informational lecture/demonstrations at MIT and Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library. We love sharing what we’ve learned with musicians and music enthusiasts young and old!  Audience members are very curious about our instruments and we are happy to engage with them.

JD:   A few Grand Harmonie concerts are coming up before the end of the season.  Please tell me about Grand Harmonie’s future plans.

SP:  March Madness is the official close of our season, but we have plenty coming up!  We will be performing Haydn’s The Creation with Edward Jones and the Harvard University Choir and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang with Edward Jones and the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus. We have loved working with Ed at least once a year since we began and it’s fair to say we have a mutual admiration for each other.  In NYC, we will be partnering with On Site Opera to perform a wind octet Harmonie arrangement of Mozart’s The Secret Gardener by our own Yoni Kahn on horn and Thomas Carroll on clarinet. Also, keep an eye out for us during the Boston Early Music Festival the second week in June!

Grand Harmonie Group photo

Grand Harmonie group Photo courtesy of Hannah Shields

Click here for all of Grand Harmonie’s upcoming concerts and here for more on Grand Harmonie’s educational outreach.  Follow Grand Harmonie on Facebook and Twitter for upcoming events and more.