ATHENS — An evening of madness, intrigue, a poison potion and a swordfight await attendees watching the famous tragedy of “Hamlet” this month at two southern West Virginia locations.
William Shakespeare’s masterpiece will be presented by the Appalachian Shakespeare Project at the Pipestem Resort State Park amphitheater at 6 p.m. on July 19 and 20 and at 2 p.m. on July 21. The production returns to the Concord University campus in Athens for performances in front of the Alexander Fine Arts Center at 6 p.m. on July 26 and 27, and at 2 p.m. on July 28.
There is no charge for admission, though donations are accepted to keep the community theatre organization going.
The shows mark the 10th anniversary of the Appalachian Shakespeare Project. Dr. Gabriel Rieger, the co-founder and executive director of the project, is directing this year’s production and appears as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
“This play is arguably the most powerful of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and one I have wanted to do it for a long time,” said Rieger, an associate professor of English and a scholar of Shakespeare’s works.
“It is, justly, one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Everyone can quote (some of) its very famous lines,” he said. “The play is challenging, but a great deal of fun.”
He said the play “presents a powerful reflection on the meanings of life and death, articulated in some of Shakespeare’s most famous poetry.”
“We are blessed with an excellent cast, possibly the best we have ever had,” Rieger said. “They are jelling together beautifully. … You couldn’t attack ‘Hamlet’ without an excellent cast.”
The complex role of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is being played by Andrew Viskup, a Bluefield College theatre major and a 2015 graduate of Graham High School. He first studied the text of “Hamlet” while a high school student.
Madison Knight, a Princeton resident and a student at Marshall University, has taken on the role of Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest until he turns her away in what appears to be a fit of madness.
Both Knight and Viskup have been involved in the Appalachian Shakespeare Project for about five years.
Viskup said about playing the lead role, “It’s definitely an interesting experience, and a challenge to do. … These are big shoes to fill. Everyone knows the lines so well, it’s obvious when you don’t get them exactly right.”
“The most difficult part is figuring out why Hamlet is doing the things he’s doing,” Viskup said. “In my own mind, I don’t believe Hamlet is crazy, (but there’s) something not right, up there, entirely.”
Rieger said, “Andrew has done outstanding work for us in the past, and I am glad that he was able to join us in this role. Already in rehearsal, he is rising to the challenge admirably.”
Two other experienced local actors, James Dyer and Karen Harvey, are making their debut with the Appalachian Shakespeare Project.
“We’re so lucky to have both of these talented performers involved,” said Rieger. “Their experience and craft are an inspiration to younger cast members and serve to elevate our production.”
The motivations and inner thoughts of the main characters in “Hamlet” are often open to question, even after scholars have spent centuries studying the script. Selecting among the possibilities is a mutual endeavor in this production, Rieger said.
“My philosophy of directing is to let the actors build their characters with as much autonomy as they are willing to (undertake),” he said. “My approach is to tell the actors what the possibilities are, and to invite them to make the choice.”
The play runs about two and a half hours, and retains Shakespeare’s original words while being played out on a nearly bare stage in the open air.
“It’s a nice area here,” Viskup said. “I would say it’s nice to be outdoors – until you’re in long sleeves and it’s 103 degrees and humid.”
Limited seating is available for the performances on the lawn at Concord University, so audience members are encouraged to bring camp chairs and blankets.
The Appalachian Shakespeare Project is a community theater organization founded in 2010 to provide the community “with an enjoyable and educational theater experience,” Rieger said. The university provides some administrative support and storage space for the project.
More information is available by contacting Rieger via email at email@example.com or by calling 304-384-5251.