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The Playgoer

Laertes (Grayson Owen) and Hamlet (Ryan Michael Neely). Photo credit: Captured by Alyssa.

StoryTellers’ Hamlet 

A Stellar Production Under the Stars 

By Jim Reiter 

The power of theater done well is that it reaches into the heart of its audience with relevance and resonance. It may not specifically mirror our own lives, but it surely reflects life itself.  

Such is the case with an excellent production of Hamlet that StoryTellers Theater Arts, a professional acting company relatively new to the area, is staging outside on the Rockbridge Academy grounds in Crownsville. Creative direction by Terry Sweet Bouma and a captivating performance by Ryan Michael Neely as Hamlet combine with clever use of the outdoor venue to deliver an experience with impact. 

Neely’s Danish prince is as human as you’ll see, the guy next door almost, mining the Bard’s early humor even as his character’s madness looms. But as the situation turns dire, Neely’s Hamlet does a deep dive into a despair that is palpable. It’s a riveting performance remarkable for Neely’s ability to subtly shift from Hamlet’s rash and murderous decisions back to his more rational thought.  

Neely is surrounded by several excellent supporting performances. Matthew Pauli is commanding as Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, who sets the madness in motion by murdering Hamlet’s father in order to take the throne, and adds insult to injury by marrying Hamlet’s mother. Acacia Danielsson is an animated and endearing Ophelia, the would-be love of Hamlet whose fate becomes wrapped in the detritus of his madness. As her brother Laertes, Grayson Owen offers some sanity to the proceedings, warning her about pursuing Hamlet and in the end … well, you know. David Sweet’s Polonius, Laertes and  Ophelia’s father and advisor to King Claudius, is indeed, as Hamlet says, “a tedious old fool,” and Sweet’s interpretation cleverly points to the comedy of his character’s foibles. 

Most of the rest of the cast play multiple roles, including a very funny acting troupe that comes out dressed in black and applauding via finger snaps, beatnik-like. Their task: dramatizing the death of Hamlet’s father, so Hamlet can gauge Claudius’s guilt through his reaction.  

It’s a wonderful production, made all the more enjoyable by a clever set that takes full advantage of the outdoor setting, complete with the woods as a backdrop. And the sound system is excellent, allowing the audience to hear all of the Bard’s famous lines as they “speak the speech.” 

In the preshow music, The GooGoo Dolls sing “I just want you to know who I am.” It perfectly describes the feelings of the Shakespearean hero we are about to see in this stellar under-the-stars production.  

Hamlet runs through July 31, beginning at 7:30 pm and running until 9:45, with one intermission. Tickets are $25 w/discounts: storytellerstheaterarts.com.