WILKES-BARRE — She’s so into her role as Hamlet, King’s College sophomore Ashley Surdovel has been dreaming about what the Danish prince’s childhood might have been like.
“I had a dream that he and Horatio and Ophelia were all friends as children,” she said, naming two other major characters in one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. “At night, they used to climb to the top of the castle and look at the stars. To escape from their families.”
Who knows what kind of problems, family or otherwise, might have sent kid Hamlet star-gazing?
When the action of the play begins, he’s old enough to be a university student, and he’s not pleased that his mother, Queen Gertrude, married his uncle, Claudius, so soon after his father’s death.
Audiences who attend the student production of “Hamlet” Feb. 14 through Feb. 18 at King’s College can watch the prince’s anger and anguish grow after his friend Horatio leads him to a place where his father’s ghost appears and tells him Claudius is responsible for the “murder most foul” of his own brother.
Hamlet’s growing distress will contribute to him becoming “a very confused individual,” said Surdovel, who is from Topton, Berks County.
It will also inflame Hamlet’s desire for revenge against his uncle. But is Claudius really so bad?
Allen Bonk, of Wilkes-Barre, suggests that Claudius, though he clearly committed fratricide, may have been motivated by something more noble than greed or lust.
Pointing out that the script mentions trouble between Denmark and Norway, Bonk said, “King Hamlet could have been a warmonger. Maybe Claudius just wanted to stop the violence. Maybe Claudius wanted to do what was best for Denmark.”
“The play is bottomless,” director Dave Reynolds said, explaining that, during their preparations, he and the cast seem to be constantly discovering new ways to present the story. With many subtle choices, he said, “it works either way; they’re equally interesting.”
The show marks the 68th annual production of a Shakespeare play at King’s College, and the college is maintaining the tradition of staging not only public shows but also matinees for high school students.
“If even one of them appreciates it and wants to dig deeper,” Bonk said, “we’ve done our job.”
Audiences of all ages will no doubt enjoy the story, cast member Britney Benkoski said, though it likely was written at the dawn of the 17th century. “Four hundred years later we’re still dying to put it on a stage.”
The play is rich with quotes that have become part of every-day modern English, from “to be or not to be” and “neither a borrower nor a lender be” to “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and “to thine own self be true.”
Citing her favorite during a rehearsal break, cast member Skylar Makuch, of Mountain Top, who portrays Ophelia, pointed to the line from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies: “what a piece of work is man.”
“It’s so eloquent and so telling,” she said, “and very philosophical.”
Bonk, for his part, enjoys the simple, direct statement Ophelia’s father, Polonius, makes after Hamlet stabs him: “I am slain.”
While the Bard’s more obscure references might require some pondering, Bonk said, “It looks like Shakespeare lobbed a soft one so audiences would understand what just happened.”
The director has placed the setting in late 1930s, pre-war Denmark, and some old-time music from Benny Goodman and Edith Piaf will add to the mood.
Reynolds said he’s given the female characters of Ophelia and Queen Gertrude more power than they have wielded in other productions, and he’s cast a woman as the tragic hero. Surdovel is “the actor best suited for the role of Hamlet,” Reynolds said, describing her portrayal as “incredible.”
“Working with her to discover Hamlet has been one of the highlights of my directing career,” he added.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.