Want to Play Hamlet? Write Him For Yourself.
"You could say I've customized the greatest role ever written for myself."
Michael Laurence's new play features Shakespeare's tortured prince
Most actors can only dream of their chance to play the great roles, but Michael Laurence has developed an alternative plan. For the second time in the last seven years, he's built his own show around one of his favorite characters.
You can see the results in Hamlet in Bed, now at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Laurence not only wrote the script for this twisty and multi-layered play-within-a-play, but also cast himself as the tortured Dane.
"You could say I've customized the greatest role ever written for myself," he says.
Laurence plays Michael, an actor and adoptee obsessed with both playing Hamlet and finding his real mother. When he discovers a former actress-turned-barfly named Anna (Annette O'Toole), he becomes fixated on the possibility that she may have given birth to him, and he eventually convinces her to play Gertrude to his Prince of Denmark. The intersection delivers a darkly comic story propelled by an undercurrent of mystery.
"Ultimately," says Laurence, "it's about the transformative power of theatre itself, so it's only fitting that it's taking its cue from the greatest play ever written."
Laurence first played a role via the backdoor when he created his 2009 solo piece Krapp, 39, imagining the desiccated figure in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape as a younger man. After earning a Drama Desk nomination for its Off-Broadway run, the show traveled to London and Dublin, and perhaps more importantly, expanded Laurence's artistic vocabulary.
"I started to develop a voice and a performance mode with that piece," he says. "And Hamlet In Bed became an extension of that voice – along with the idea of relating to an existing famous theatre work. Those are my two favorite plays and the roles I would have died to play."
Annette O'Toole and Michael Laurence
Of course, Hamlet isn't Laurence's only role in Hamlet in Bed, and Michael is an equally important presence. As things change between Michael and Anna in their "real lives," their approach to the Shakespearean text changes, and this leads to powerful moments when their personal growth results in a more impassioned reading of the classic work. The two realities begin reflecting one another, suggesting that seemingly disparate modern and classical stories can often be quite similar.
Communicating all these layers challenges Laurence as a writer, but it also asks a lot of him as an actor. "Hamlet In Bed is a very tricky piece in that I'm toggling between two different performance modes or styles [throughout the show]," he says. "There are scenes that are monologues or duologues delivered to the audience on microphones – in a sort of confessional, storytelling mode à la Spalding Gray – that toggle between more conventional scenes that are very naturalistic. There's a real energy in this toggling mode that causes an exciting dissonance."
It's no surprise that Laurence, who has extensive credits as a Broadway, film, and television actor, references Spalding Gray. As a writer-performer, he has a longtime admiration for dual-hatted artists like Gray, Sam Shepard, Wallace Shawn, and Eric Bogosian. "These are artists who did both," he says. "The lines between them were blurred, as they are for me."
However, although he certainly enjoys the creative freedom of writing and performing his own work, he knows how difficult it can be to maintain perspective on something created alone. That's where Laurence credits his director, Lisa Peterson. "I totally trust Lisa," he says. "When I'm putting on the actor hat, I surrender to her judgment, her tastes and instincts. We have a great working relationship; there's a vital conversation going on about the play at all times."
Shakespeare, too, has been a guiding force. "While my play is a very contemporary story, I feel I'm shadowboxing with Shakespeare's masterpiece," Laurence says. "So whenever I'm stumbling around a character issue or have questions or am plain stuck, I pick up Hamlet and start reading. And invariably, it unlocks something within my own story for me. I'm interfacing in my own little word-drunk, obsessive way with the crown jewel of our culture."
Jeff Potter is a journalist and musician living in Washington Heights.
Photos by Tristan Fuge. Top photo: Michael Laurence.
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