Thunder River Theatre takes on ‘Hamlet’ |

Thunder River Theatre takes on ‘Hamlet’

Thunder River Theatre's production of "Hamlet" opens Friday and runs through March 14. The Carbondale theater company is celebrating its 20th anniversary season.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: “Hamlet,” presented by Thunder River Theatre

Where: Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale

When: Friday, Feb. 27 through Saturday, March 14; 7:30 p.m. (2 p.m. on Sundays)

Cost: $12/students; $14/20 and 30-somethings; $20/adults

Tickets and more info:

“You don’t do ‘Hamlet’ unless you have Hamlet.”

So declared Thunder River Theatre director Lon Winston, whose company is staging the Shakespeare classic as the centerpiece of its 20th anniversary season. He didn’t think he could have pulled off the play at Thunder River until just a few years ago, when actor David Pulliam walked into the Carbondale theater.

In Pulliam, Winston found his Hamlet.

Asked what he saw in Pulliam that made him think he could handle what is arguably theater’s toughest role, Winston laughed and said, “He’s a moody son of a bitch!”

“You do character studies and that doesn’t leave you. The big challenge as an actor is not just to play the bravado and personality, but to show what’s underneath that.”David Pulliamactor

Since his head-turning Thunder River debut in Thunder River’s 2013 production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Pulliam has indeed taken on some moody roles. But “Hamlet,” it turns out, was the first play Pulliam, now 36, did as an actor.

As a high school freshman in the Milwaukee suburbs, Pulliam recalled, he got in a fight in the cafeteria. As punishment, he was given the choice between two Saturday detentions or auditioning for the school production of “Hamlet.”

He opted to audition, got a minor part of Hamlet’s friend Horatio, and an actor was born.

“As a teenager, I was obsessed by the idea of being a Renaissance man,” Pulliam said one recent morning on the “Hamlet” set, six weeks into rehearsals.

His love for the arts was matched by a passion for working with his hands. Out of high school, Pulliam opted for accumulating life experience rather than college credits. He moved around the U.S. and worked in a cowhide tannery, in factories and on construction sites. His father had been in the meat business, so he’d grown up playing “Rocky” with carcasses in meat lockers.

He eventually auditioned for the theater department at State University of New York at Purchase and won a scholarship to study there. After graduating, he acted some in New York, then moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2011 where he didn’t initially seek out local acting opportunities. In his first few years here, Pulliam plowed snow, worked in a lumber yard, as a TSA screener at the airport and as a mechanic for the Roaring Fork Transit Authority.

Pulliam, whose current day job is in the Omnibus Gallery in Aspen, was persuaded by a friend to audition for “Long Day’s Journey” two years ago.

Winston added him to the company and found the actor’s life experience, as well as his intellect, helped him craft characters of depth.

“You hear him talk and there’s a wonderful mind that has a deep sense of understanding of the world that he lives in and never really had the time — like Hamlet — to just let life happen and live it,” Winston said. “I pay attention to what he says, and I make note of it, and I see the behaviors around the life responsibility he has as a young man. Wrenches get thrown into his life and I see the way he reacts to those wrenches. And I embrace that, because theater is all about that.”

Pulliam has a 14-year-old son himself, and said that relationship, as well as his relationship with his own father, has shaped the way he’s interpreting Hamlet as a tormented young man haunted by his slain father.

“If I died tomorrow, what would I want to impart to my son?” he asked. “That informs it. I think there’s an opportunity to make it a very layered performance. I’ve seen some (actors play Hamlet) that are just on the surface, some that overdo it and play him as crazy. But that’s dull. I think the way I’ve approached it, it’s going to be multifaceted.”

He’s also drawn on his recent roles at Thunder River, where he’s played a handful of angry young men, from Jamie the cynical party boy in “Long Day’s Journey” to Richard, the power-hungry military man in “The Lion in Winter.”

“You do character studies and that doesn’t leave you,” Pulliam said. “The big challenge as an actor is not just to play the bravado and personality, but to show what’s underneath that.”

For the Thunder River production, which opens today, Winston has cut the play’s running time down to about two hours (from its rarely produced unexpurgated four-plus hours). Winston said he opted to focus on the ghost story at the play’s center, and the revenge plot that drives it. Winston deconstructed the play, shifted a few scenes around and re-assembled it.

When staging it, Winston aimed for no specific time period. The play’s universality, he argued, is what’s kept it relevant for 400 years. In his online director’s diary, Winston quoted British director Peter Hall, who said Hamlet “turns a new face toward each century, even to each decade. He is a mirror which gives back the audience the reflection of the age that is contemplating him.”

Winston has created a platformed set lined in black velour, and used nondescript black costumes for his cast of twelve, with white masks occasionally in use.

“For me it’s about staging the play so that there is no time identified,” he said. “It becomes, then, a universal story. … We’re saying to the audience, ‘Listen to the language. Listen to what the characters say about each other and themselves.’ It’s just the torment, the revenge, the ghost story. It floats on an island of its own.”

The gimmicky staging that’s often used for Shakespeare plays — “Hamlet” in the War of 1812, “The Taming of the Shrew” in the Old West — only serves to distract and confuse the audience, Winston argued. In the end, of course, seeing “Hamlet” is about “words, words, words.”

Said Winston, “You sit through a bad ‘Hamlet’ — any bad Shakespeare really — and it kills your heart.”

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