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.”
Shenely 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 www.shakespeareindelawarepark.org