Back to Hamlet
After 20 years, Chicago Shakespeare Theater's award-winning artistic director, Barbara Gaines, makes her return to one of Shakespeare’s most influential works. What she learned in the process makes this a very personal production that will likely be one Chicago theater audiences won't soon forget.

By Fred Cummings



Barbara Gaines returns to Shakespeare's most iconic character after 20 years this spring (photo by Peter Bossy).

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From the Spring 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

Anyone who has ever been privileged enough to see a Barbara Gaines production of virtually any Shakespearean work instantly begins to understand the award-winning director has an uncanny grasp of just how to transmute some of the most complex tangles of language, emotion and themes with a lyrical style that is simultaneously contemporary and yet timeless.

Arguably, Shakespeare’s most powerful work, and considered one of the most influential in modern literature, Hamlet is fraught with a complexity unlike most. Imagine it, you’re a young prince who's been summoned home to attend the funeral of your father. You find your mother has married your uncle who has quickly seized control of the kingdom, and suddenly your deepest, darkest suspicions about the entire matter are given staggeringly eerie credence when the ghost of your father tells you that uncle is indeed responsible for his death. Furthermore, you're given the mandate to exact your father’s revenge by killing him. It’s an enormous feat bringing such a complex, tragic story to life on the live stage. Emotional rhythms from themes both cardinal and mosaic converge throughout the work in a sometimes dissonant effect that often sets audiences ajar in less skilled hands. Make no mistake, Hamlet is a break-through work for any director first tackling it.

It’s been more than 20 years since Gaines last tackled Hamlet. She’d been called in to replace an ailing director for a UK production a short time before opening night. She prepared for the work holed up in a small village outside of London. And while there, she did a small bit of market research to help shape her understanding of the local audiences’ perception of one of Shakespeare’s most charismatic characters. She explained, “I would ask everyone I would come in contact with, ‘What does Hamlet mean to you? What is it about? What does it mean to you?' And of the dozens, and literally dozens, of people I spoke to, everyone said something different. And I learned one of the greatest lessons in directing Shakespeare, which is: you may think it’s about this, but you have no control over what people really feel. It may be something that has absolutely nothing to do with your ideas.”

Gaines explained that this knowledge forged a great lesson for her in that it allowed her to approach the work with “a more open heart,” freeing, perhaps, in the sense that trusting the work itself to carry its message ultimately became the goal.

Gaines acknowledges that she has certainly matured as a director since that last production, and she’s brought Hamlet’s many lessons along for the ride. Undoubtedly, they’ve served her well in her distinguished career. She’s staged more than 60 productions at Chicago Shakespeare Theater alone. Along the way, she’s garnered the prestigious Honorary OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and a slew of Joseph Jefferson Awards for Best Production and for Best Director. Her staging of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 was featured in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival in 2006. And she’s even taken her keen insights to the world of opera, where she’s led productions of Verdi’s Macbeth and, most recently, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

With such muscularity in her experience, one might assume Gaines chooses her works with relative freedom. But, as she told me, it’s just not so. It’s the work that that choose Gaines. “These plays pull me,” she said of the experience of programming her productions over the years. “This is not an intellectual choice.” So, quite naturally, when Gaines felt that pull to return to Hamlet after two decades, she went with it.

This time, she had a personal connection with the material, one that was discovered through the happenstance of a song that had been playing while she was preparing for this new production. She explained, “So a song comes on on my phone and I’d never heard it before, because I must have bought an album, and as soon as I listened to the lyrics, I realized that was the doorway into the play for me.”

That kind of inspiration was a first, she told me. But that first created a powerful nexus for the director that linked Hamlet’s iconic struggle with her own tragic experience of loss. In that moment, the song,   “I Can Never Say Goodbye” by Irish singer/songwriter Enya, played the lyrics: “Time moves on in the falling rain. I still dream of you and whisper your name. Will I see you once again? I could never say goodbye to the sadness in my eyes. You know you are in my heart.”

Gaines explained that those lyrics triggered a memory of a very difficult time for her, a time when her father, with whom she was very close, suddenly passed away. It was 1987 and she was directing her first production of Shakespeare’s Troiless and Cressida at Ruth Page Theater in New York. He was en route to see the production when he passed away quite suddenly. In that moment, the responsibilities of helming this show, while supporting her family and burying her father became understandably overwhelming. Like so many do every day, she got through it. It wasn’t until hearing the lyrics of that song that Gaines realized that like so many do in the same sort of circumstances, she never really got to process her father’s passing. She never really got to grieve. And it was also in that moment that she realized she’d shared that common experience with Hamlet.

She explained, “Because (Hamlet) comes home. There’s the funeral and right away, the ghost. And suddenly he hears his father’s been murdered—from a ghost, no less.  So, neither he, nor I, nor millions of people ever went through that process of the grief, of anger, of trying to put your relationship together, of the sorrow, of the memory…events get in your way."

And so, she explained, “This is why I want to do this play again. I share this with Hamlet, love of a father who dies too soon. And what happens, and how you behave after that. It was the inspiration that I needed.”

So sets the context for Gaines’ latest foray into Shakespeare’s seminal character. It's at the production's outset that she presents these pointed questions, and we follow Hamlet on his journey of discovery throughout.

Taking us on that journey will be acclaimed actor Raul Esparza. An artist whose career has spanned stage and screen, Esparza has the distinction of having been nominated in every Tony Award category for which an actor is eligible (in both plays and musicals)—only the second performer in history to reach this milestone. Hamlet brings Esparza back for a welcome return to Chicago, where he cut his teeth for nearly a decade on roles at theaters like the Goodman, Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens.

But, to be honest, just how the stars aligned to bring Esparza and Gaines together in this production was not exactly chance. In fact, it was Esparza who presented the idea to Gaines in the first place. Gaines, who had known the actor for years, was in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center to see him in the lead of a concert production of the musical, Chess.  It was at an after party for the performance that Esparza approached Gaines, gave her a big hug, then looked her directly in the eyes to ask, “Do you think I’m right for Hamlet?” The actor shared that he’d loved the play since childhood, and had long since endeavored to take on the lead role.

Gaines’ answer to his question was a resounding, “Yes,” and so the production Chicagoans will enjoy this spring began to materialize pretty quickly from there.

Gaines knew immediately that this part was Esparza’s to play. Just one look at his career and you see a versatile actor with a range as wide as they come. A fixture on the Broadway stage, the three-time Drama Desk Award winner has held leading roles in Company, Arcadia, Speed-the-Plow, The Homecoming, Leap of Faith and Taboo. Of his many television roles, his most recent was as Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba, a six-year season regular on NBC’s long-running drama, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

"It's a joy to be able to create and celebrate Hamlet with Raúl—who was positively born to play this role,” Gaines said in an initial announcement about the new production, “He is a brilliant, spectacular, insanely rigorous actor…His natural charisma, never-ending curiosity and generosity of spirit will fill our stage with wonder. The prospect of examining this story alongside such an outstanding artist is thrilling.”

Considering just how big a role Hamlet is and the wealth of talent Esparza brings to it, Gaines will take a pretty minimalist approach to quite literally setting the stage for this new production. Presented in modern day, this Hamlet will be void of extraneous staging elements because from the early outset of this project, Gaines had decided to keep the production as lean as possible. “This show is all about the human soul in a way all other plays are not, and certainly all of Shakespeare,” she told me. “I just wanted simplicity because I don’t need anything else.” A notable exception to this rule will be a collection of special effects, Gaines hopes will, “knock your socks off.”

But she is going a step further than stage design in keeping this production lean, she’s also cutting Shakespeare’s notoriously superfluous script. Noting the typical four-hour run-time may be just a bit too much to ask of today’s audiences, Gaines insists that with the speed of our lives today, with the instant access of news and information via mobile phones, she errs on the side of brevity with all of Shakespeare’s plays. For Gaines, less is more. “The smaller characters that have really long speeches, and you get to hear about their childhood? No more," she said. "This (production) is only focused on Hamlet and what he’s dealing with.”

And with a mandate from his late father’s ghost to visit quick vengeance upon a traitorous uncle and the internal conflict that a mother's betrayal presents, there's certainly an ample supply of issues to deal with. But with a fresh approach, a personal connection that marries her own emotions to those of her title character and an actor with a lifelong passion for the script, this production is likely to be one of the most important in the theater’s history and in Chicago’s theater season.

Hamlet runs April 17 – June 9 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier.

UPDATE: Chicago Shakespeare Theater has announced since the publication of this feature that due to unforeseen circumstances, actor Raul Esparza has had to pull out of the upcoming production of Hamlet. Actor Maurice Jones will step into the role.