Michael Cumpsty's Melancholy Dane at Off-Broadway's CSC is under the direction of artistic director Brian Kulick. The 45-year-old Cumpsty is in the company of Caroline Lagerfelt as Gertrude, Robert Dorfman as Claudius, Kellie Overbey as Ophelia, Herb Foster as Polonius, Graham Winton as Horatio, Jon DeVries as Player King/Ghost/Osric, Karl Kenzler as Laertes/Guildenstern and Jason Ma as Rosencrantz/Player Queen.
Cumpsty is the respected classical and popular actor who has appeared in Broadway's Copenhagen, Democracy, Enchanted April, Electra, 1776, 42nd Street and The Constant Wife. In 1923, John Barrymore had one of his career triumphs when he played Hamlet in his forties.
"I think Michael is one of the great Shakespearean actors," Kulick told Playbill.com the day before the first preview. "One of the interesting things that happened to him in his career was that just as he was arriving and emerging in the way that most young classical actors do, where he's about to play the big, great classic roles — during the mid-Public Theater days — he got snapped up by Broadway stuff, and took a different trajectory."
Cumpsty made his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard's Artist Descending a Staircase in 1989.
"You have this incredible classical mind and instrument and passion that has been putting attention on a different kind of material," Kulick said. "Michael is like the Glenn Gould of Shakespeare actors. Whenever he attacks a text it's immediately alive. He's not refined. It feels like a combination of intellect and ferociousness. You imagine to yourself, God, I wonder if this is what it was like to sit in the Globe theatre." Do we have historical information about the ages of Elizabethan actors when they played major roles?
"We know that [Richard] Burbage was 37 when he played Hamlet," Kulick said. "We know the next actor played Hamlet starting in his forties but played it well into his fifties. Sarah Bernhardt did it at 55, [John] Barrymore was 42, Olivier was 40 when he did the film version."
Hamlet's reputation is as a "student," so a youthfulness is assumed, no?
"If you do the math in the text, the part suggests Hamlet is in his early thirties — the Gravedigger and Hamlet [scene] is where you can sort of date it, from that moment," Kulick said. "It may be that Shakespeare always had Burbage in mind. When you think of…'student,' from an Elizabethan point of view, it's more along the lines of 'scholar' rather than someone who is an undergrad. It's dangerous, in some ways, to think of him as an undergraduate because then you write off the problems as hormonal. They're not hormonal, they're existential. But our society is interested nowadays in youth and hormones and so everything is being re-scripted in this kind of literal, reductivist way. It blunts the real purpose and edge of some of these great classical works."
The theatre is supposed to unlock the imagination. Is today's audience too literal to view an older actor in the role?
"If you start thinking literally about these things, then that means Romeo and Juliet must be played by 14-year-olds," Kulick said. "You start going down a slippery slope. Theatre has always been about transformation, imagination, metaphor. And I don't know if I want to see a 14-year-old go through 14-year-old things! I'd like to see a 20-year-old with the understanding of what it's like to be 14, from the vantage of 20. That's part of the magic of theatre. There are these time displacements that the actor plays with, and the audience plays with, that are part of the transformational nature of theatricality. [Michael's] age was never really an issue. People were up in arms that Simon Russell Beale was playing Hamlet because he was slightly larger in terms of size — a heavier-set Hamlet. Well, Burbage was 250 pounds! That's part of the strange magic of this particular play."
Kulick directed Cumpsty in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Timon of Athens. The official opening for Hamlet is Nov. 13 at 7 PM. Performances play to Dec. 11.
The creative team includes scenic designer Mark Wendland; costume designer Oana Botez-Ban, lighting designer Brian Scott and sound designer Jorge Muelle.
CSC, which is beginning its 38th season, is "committed to re-imagining the classical repertory for a contemporary American audience." Its home is on East 13th Street. For more information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, or visit www.classicstage.org.