Shakespeare in Delaware Park brings ‘Hamlet’ back to basics

Robert Kirkham Hamlet BN Photo

By Colin Dabkowski | News Arts Critic | @colindabkowski

on June 20, 2013 – 12:20 AM

“Then, I thought I had to throw everything in, and I did. Now, I’m thinking that I need to trust Mr. Shakespeare. I need to trust the play a little bit more.” – Saul Elkin, founder and artistic director of Shakespeare in Delaware Park

During Saul Elkin’s first attempt to bring “Hamlet” to life on the Shakespeare in Delaware Park stage in 1977, the young director made some bold and bizarre choices.

He inserted a snooping Hamlet, disguised as a Puerto Rican janitor, into a scene in which the scheming King Claudius enlists two of the young prince’s college buddies to spy on him. When the time came for Hamlet to deliver Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy – “To be, or not to be …” – he did so in a Puerto Rican accent. Ophelia’s death scene involved Hamlet raising a gun to her head while carting her off stage in a sort of wheelbarrow.

The whacked-out production was based on “Naked Hamlet,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s original by Elkin’s Ph.D. mentor, Joe Papp, who founded the Public Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival in the early 1950s. It included a rock band, film projections and all sorts of bells and whistles beyond even the Bard’s expansive imagination.

But when Elkin’s fifth version of “Hamlet” opens on Shakespeare Hill tonight, all audiences will see is a jet-black stage punctuated by a single painted tapestry and actors delving into the language of the play. No avant-garde interpretations. No modern-day flourishes. And no Puerto Rican accents.

“It was my notion, back then, that was the direction theater was going. I’m not sure it is anymore,” Elkin said. “Then, I thought I had to throw everything in, and I did. Now, I’m thinking that I need to trust Mr. Shakespeare. I need to trust the play a little bit more.”

Though Elkin has pared the play down from its original running time of more than four hours to around three, he has otherwise left the language untouched. The set is spare and the play’s frequent shifts from one location to the next are usually indicated by nothing more than the actors’ body language. The audience, as was the case in Shakespeare’s time, fills in the rest with their own estimable imaginations.

His take on “Hamlet” has evolved over the decades, from an all-out “total theater” interpretation to gradually more language-focused productions. This year’s show, he said, is about bringing it back to basics.

Niagara Falls native Shaun Sheley, a St. Louis-based actor and teacher who last appeared on the Shakespeare in Delaware Park stage in a 2000 production of “As You Like It,” is playing the demanding role for the first time in his career. Though at first the prospect of playing perhaps the most sought-after and challenging role in English theater weighed heavily on Sheley, he has since come to treat it as he would any other theatrical challenge.

After reading books on the role and familiarizing himself with the most notable performances of the conflicted Danish prince, from Edwin Booth and John Barrymore to Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, he has settled into a kind of confidence about the task ahead of him.

“You get sort of a wide range of interpretations of the different Hamlets,” Sheley said of his research for the role. “But having said that, it’s gotta be your own. You’ve got to just leave all that aside and get out there and dig for truth.”

“Hamlet,” like all great works of literature, strikes the reader at remarkably different angles depending on that reader’s age. A teenager reading the play for the first time might think of the 30-year-old prince as unfathomably complex and adult. It might take on more self-analytical overtones for a 30-year-old. And for those a decade older than the tortured protagonist, it takes on even deeper and more complicated shades.

For Sheley, approaching the play with 40 years of life experience behind him makes its existential themes all the more evident and poignant.

“I’m more attuned now to all the various motifs around the idea of death, life. He goes back and forth with this struggle: what is life, what is death, what comes after, what the hell are we doing in this place, what’s the point, is there a point, yes there has to be a point,” he said. “It’s just those ideas that keep popping up over and over again: What are we doing here, what are we supposed to do, how do we get through this life and not screw up too much?”

These are eternal, unanswerable questions to which anyone of almost any age can relate to, which is one essential part of the play’s appeal across the centuries.

But the play’s language – quotable and poetic as it is – has proved one of its major challenges. For Elkin, having actors on hand like Sheley, his daughter Rebecca Elkin-Young, who plays Ophelia, and SDP veteran Tim Newell as Claudius, helps to make sure none of Shakespeare’s meaning gets lost in translation.

“The quality both these gentlemen have is that they can speak the language with great clarity and they can also be very real about the action that underlies the language,” Elkin said. “There’s no doubt in my mind what’s up with Hamlet and Claudius while they’re up there.”

Elkin has decided to leave the play’s anachronistic references and outmoded words intact, challenging the actors to help the audience understand the language by highlighting its context and communicating its motivation. There’s a scene, for instance, in which Claudius says that he has “bought an unction of a mountebank” – a poisonous oil from an untrustworthy doctor – which remains unchanged.

“A what from a who?” Sheley asked, jokingly. “But we make it clear,” Elkin said. “The intention is there.”

While there are no radical interpretations at work in this production of “Hamlet,” the sixth in the company’s history, Elkin and Sheley view Hamlet as a pragmatic figure rather than as a tortured man who procrastinates and is completely unsure of himself.

In Elkin’s view and Sheley’s delivery, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy has more to do with the practical considerations of carrying out murder than with the existential poetic reverie we normally associate with the speech. To them, the question is not exactly “To be, or not to be?” but rather, “To murder, or not to murder?”

“My advice to Sean was, this is not a contemplative speech,” Elkin said. “This is not only, ‘Should I commit suicide?’ but, ‘Should I kill the king as well, and what happens if I commit murder?’ So he comes in on the run and does it.”

Sheley immediately bought into the approach, which replaces what is typically a bout of tortured poetic yearning with a straightforward internal debate. “He’s thinking on his feet all the time,” Sheley said. “He can’t be sitting there ho-hummin’. He’s got to be thinking, he’s got to be moving.”

For Newell, who has played a string of villains on the SDP stage to great acclaim – none more popular than his portrayal of Richard III last year – the opportunity to play Claudius provides a different challenge.

“He’s up there with King Richard, I think, in how deliciously charming he can be,” Newell said. “The real fire kicks in in the second half of our production, once he’s on to the fact that Hamlet is now pursuing his life.”

There are endless readings of Shakespeare’s longest tragedy and his popular protagonist, many valid and many out of left-field. For his fifth time through, Elkin and his cast have chosen to hew closely to the text and to let Shakespeare’s language speak loudly and clearly for itself.

“In the end, every actor’s task is to attach a believable intention to the words,” Elkin said, “and if the intention is believable and if it’s true to the text, then the words are understandable and we know what you’re about. We know what you’re after.”



Shakespeare in Delaware Park Opens 38th Season

Channel 2 WGRZ’s Daybreak Season Segment from June 20, 2013

Swords and Shakespeare

BUFFALO, NY (CW23) – Every Summer Shakespeare in Delaware Park offers some amazing theatre to Western New Yorkers. The 2013 season opens with one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Hamlet. Join us for a sneak peak of the upcoming performance and as we find out what this season has to offer.


Swords and Shakespeare

Falls native Shaun Sheley stars in Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Hamlet’

June 13, 2013

Falls native Shaun Sheley stars in Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Hamlet’


By Michele DeLuca Night & Day


Night & Day — Nobody produces “Hamlet” unless they already have an actor in mind to star in the challenging Shakespearian production.

That’s according to Saul Elkin, founder of Buffalo’s Shakespeare in the Park, who, when he decided to produce “Hamlet” as his opening play this summer, knew just who he wanted in the title role — Niagara Falls native Shaun Sheley.

“The only reason to do ‘Hamlet’ is if you have an actor to play it,” said Elkin, an much lauded actor in his own right, who explained that Sheley has the acting skills and the physicality for the role.

“Shaun also happens to be very experienced in stage combat,” Elkin added. “There’s a fight scene at the end of the play that is really breathtaking to watch, even now in the early stages of rehearsal.”

For Sheley, a graduate from the theater department at Niagara University, who has been acting and teaching in St. Louis, Mo., coming home to take the role is an opportunity not only to see family and friends, but to play the part of a lifetime.

“Every actor wants to play Hamlet,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated with the role. When I was at Niagara, I used to bug everybody to do ‘Hamlet.’”

One of the reasons he loves the play, he said, is that the plot is as good as any Hollywood movie.

“For me, Hamlet is a detective in this play. He’s solving a murder mystery, trying to figure out who killed his father,” Sheley said. The plot involves a prince whose murdered father appears as a ghost and says he was killed by Hamlet’s traitorous uncle, Claudius, who becomes king and forces Hamlet’s mother into marriage.

The role shapes the actor more than the actor shapes the role, Sheley noted. “People say you can come in with all your plans about Hamlet, but eventually the character is going to take you,” he said. “He’s going to mold you to him, you’re going to go on this wonderful ride in this imaginary journey, its’ been fun so far.”

Sheley has appeared in a variety of local productions, including for the Irish Classical Theater and at Artpark. But, with four years of performances at Shakespeare in the Park, the role feels like a homecoming after ten years away.

The free park productions, which run at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays throughout the summer on Shakespeare Hill, near the Rose Garden in Delaware Park, are designed to make classical theater accessible and to encourage families to come with children, Elkin said. People bring chairs and food and often let kids fall asleep in sleeping bags as they watch the productions.

“Someone once said to me that Shakespeare in the Park is like a huge community picnic where a play is going on,” said Elkin, who founded the company, now second largest free Shakespeare production in the country, about 38 years ago.  He said he’s particularly looking forward to this season as his daughter, Rebecca Elkin-Young, is coming back to Buffalo to play Ophelia. The production also stars Buffalo actor Tim Newell as Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle.

While Elkin’s has produced “Hamlet” five times, including a rock and roll version, this production of “Hamlet” is very traditional, he said. A second play this season “Measure for Measure,” however, will receive a makeover. That 17th century play, about a duke who goes undercover to understand why his subjects seem to have lost their morals, will be transformed into a 1920s Western theme, featuring a sheriff who goes undercover to find out why his town has gone wild. “This production is going to introduce some old familiar Western songs,” Elkin promised.

“Measure for Measure” runs July 25 through Aug. 18.


IF YOU GO • WHAT: Shakespeare in the Park • WHERE: Delaware Park, Buffalo on Shakespeare Hill near the Albright-Knox Art Gallery • WHAT: Free production of “Hamlet” starring Niagara Falls native Shaun Sheley • WHEN: Opening at 7:30 p.m. June 20 through July 14, Tues. through Sun. • MORE INFO: Bring blankets or lawn chairs. Street parking only. For more information visit

Hamlet PR 1































Photo courtesy of Chris Scinta: Niagara Falls native Shaun Sheeley will play Hamlet to Tim Newell’s Claudius in Shakespeare in the Park’s production of “Hamlet” this summer, opening June 20 in Delaware Park in Buffalo.

7th Annual Fall Fundraiser TITUS ANDRONICUS: A Staged Reading



TITUS ANDRONICUS a staged reading


October 12, 2012 Buffalo, NY…Shakespeare in Delaware Park (SDP) is pleased to announce its 7th Annual Fall Fundraiser, a staged reading of William Shakespeare’s TITUS ANDRONICUS, adapted and directed by Anthony Chase and sponsored by LPCimminelli.


Join Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s all- star cast, including SDP founder and artistic director Saul Elkin, Adriano Gatto, Susan Drozd, Lisa Vitrano, Greg Howze, Jeffrey Coyle, Peter Palmisano, Lisa Ludwig and a host of other familiar theatre favorites. Titus Andronicus is thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy and is certainly known as his bloodiest play.


This fictional story of Roman army General, Titus, is set during the latter days of the Roman Empire. The play highlights Shakespeare’s’ attempt to emulate the violent and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries, which were extremely popular with sixteenth century audiences.  SDP has never produced this tragedy on the main stage and is happy to continue this yearly fundraising event of providing a staged reading of the Bard’s rarely produced work for all to hear and enjoy.


This special benefit performance for Shakespeare in DelawareParkwill take place on Sunday, November 4th at the Buffalo Seminary. The evening will begin at 6 pm with pre-show entertainment, hors d’oeuvres by Rich’s Renaissance Catering and wine tasting provided by Leonard Oakes Winery.  The TITUS ANDRONICUS reading will begin at 7pm with dessert and coffee served at intermission,


Tickets for TITUS ANDRONICUS (a staged reading) are $50 for Shakespeare in Delaware Park members and $55 for non-members.  All proceeds benefit Shakespeare in Delaware Park, just completing its 37TH successful season of FREE Shakespeare.  The production will take place at The Buffalo Seminary located at 205 Bidwell Parkway.  Special thanks to sponsor LPCiminelli, and generous in kind donations from Rich’s Renaissance Catering, Leonard Oakes Winery, the Buffalo Seminary and Phillips Lytle LLP.  Seating is limited.   Reserve your tickets before November 1st by calling 856-4533 or visit Shakespeare in Delaware Park on the web at

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