To Be Or Not To Be Hamlet

Next Act’s fun staging of ‘The Last White Man’ imagines three actors competing for role under guidance of Black female director.

By - Apr 18th, 2022 04:11 pm
Ken Miller and Demetria Thomas. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Ken Miller and Demetria Thomas. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Bill Cain is an erudite playwright (and Jesuit priest, incidentally), whose writings are frequently full of offbeat humor despite serious subject matter. Often performed and honored around the country (with plays like Equivocation, 9 Circles, and Stand Up Tragedy), he has become a favorite of Next Act Theatre’s artistic director David Cecsarini, who has now designed and directed a world premiere running through May 8 whose title requires some explaining.

Cain has envisioned three actors competing to play Shakespeare’s Hamlet as directed by Xandria, a Black female director who imagines not only the ultimate (as in final – for all time) production of the venerable classic but also explores a subtext exposing the white pretensions (Hamlet is a suicidal Dane, after all), aristocratic social attitudes and casual insults to everything the modern Black woman believes in.

Hence Cain titles this production The Last White Man and takes the fabulous iambic verse of the original to spin a web that fits his tongue-in-cheek premise, with constant flips of expectations and some entertaining sallies into the philosophical. It is a rare thing when Gloria Gaynor, AIDS and disco anthems and Shakespeare can wiggle together, but Cain brings it off.

The nice thing about the fame of Shakespeare is that the audience is quick to pick up on the jokes, which are often built on playing around with famous phrases. I would venture that Cain’s play may actually expose more about the plot motors of Hamlet than many straight productions have. Of course, it helps to know something about the original.

One of the three actors competing to play Hamlet is an Oscar winning movie star who wants to drop a word here and there in the famous text – can you imagine? — while discussing the work in his own intellectual whirlwind. He is played with audacious vigor and full Shakespearean delivery by Ken Miller. Another Hamlet is the most transcendent performer, quick of wit and relaxed expertise (a performance by Brian J. Gill whose secure center makes us think he could act anything, and he is often required to do just that).

The script is loaded with famous old theater stories and this production has one to top them all, as Cecsarini explained in an amusing curtain speech. The third Hamlet is the actor always on standby who also knows every part in the play and constantly refuses to play Horatio, the part he is designed for.

Cecsarini pointed out how the reality of COVID protocols led to the standby Hamlet’s understudy having to step in on short notice and take on the part — Neil Brookshire, who picked the part up so smoothly that you would have thought he was cast in it. The actor sidelined by COVID protocols, JJ Gatesman, takes over next weekend.

The no-nonsense black director is played by Demetria Thomas with unshowy directness about her ideas for the play and frank admissions of her directorial scheme. Her job is to bring a casual modern sensibility to the hyperactive Hamlets. The actors are all talented, but the script requires extra effort at consistency.

Cain’s approach and Cecsarini’s rotating staging carefully set the production in 1989 to also take advantage of headlines of the time. The production also stages duels and a gliding fatherly ghost. The cast takes turns at these side surreal moments.

There is enough humor and interesting conversation as the cast struggles with the production ideas to make the first act sail by, including some intriguing conversation and insights into what motivates actors. The second act has more problems, since the novelty has worn off and the playwright can’t find enough plot reversals to keep the enterprise humming. It has one good ending and still attempts three others. So it’s not quite yet a full play but a lot of fun along the way.

The Last White Man Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

One thought on “Theater: To Be Or Not To Be Hamlet”

  1. tornado75 says:

    is it fair to critique the critic?? i find noth’s assessment of next act plays, yes, plays, lacking in depth and not capturing the wonderful acting that i see on the stage. i would say, there are not three actors competing for the role of hamlet. two of them have been cast in that role with a third, the stand by, standing by and literally having to jump into the play because of real covid and play issues. noth lightly touches on the philosophical discussions in the play which also raises the issue can any actor, regardless of ethnicity, play any role. and what about the titile in this discussion. i just find noth not very deep or complete. the woman who played the director was strong, interesting and really good. so, i think urban milwaukee needs a new play critic.

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