I have been waiting to see Matthew Lewis Johnson play a Shakespeare role since I enjoyed his local directorial debut at 2014's Summerfest production of Twelfth Night.
Johnson's fresh understanding of material presented in surprisingly accessible ways was a hallmark of his Summerfest production, one that is now amplified in his striking portrayal of Hamlet in Winterfest's debut of playwright Andrew Cowie's one-man adaptation of the famous tragedy. The hour-long adaptation requires an actor with a keen and nuanced grasp of Shakespeare's language as well as plain ol' theatrical muscle and endurance.
Johnson proves up to the challenge. And it's a tough challenge at that.
The show may only last half as long as most plays, but Johnson plays or interacts with other roles while de facto narrating as Hamlet in an unrelentingly athletic and imaginative performance.
Directed by Brian Isaac Phillips, producing artistic director for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the show's creative premise answers the question, "Why do we need a one-man Hamlet in the first place?" while delving into a fascinatingly astute exploration of the character.
The clues to the premise include the large, old-fashioned steamer trunk placed on a stage minimally dressed with red carpet and a plain scrim. Johnson enters wearing a black vintage formal suit and carries a dagger. It took me a minute to connect the dots, but soon I realized that Phillips is paying homage to those traveling actors of old. Whether referencing the traveling players who help Hamlet "catch the conscience of the king" or the touring actors of the 19th century who carried their worldly belongings in a trunk and often performed truncated or one-person versions of classic scenes, there is a nod to the role of the player throughout history.
Within that context, Johnson's portrayal of Hamlet is rooted in longstanding traditions of storytelling. From working with masks to pantomiming to breaking the fourth wall to interact with the audience, Johnson draws widely from the theatrical playbook. His Hamlet is as likeable and entertaining as he is troubled.
Small, creative, but meaningful interactive flourishes, like making the audience swear an oath by raising their hands at the play's beginning, keep the audience guessing not so much about what will happen (many of us know the story of Hamlet) as how. For instance, I wondered how the play within a play scene would be executed by just one person. The answer? With masks and lighting effects. The appearance of Hamlet's ghostly father is perhaps the most ambitiously and impressively rendered; sound and lighting effects shift the mood, but Hamlet's father "speaks" through Hamlet himself by full body possession (kind of like when Professor Trelawney receives a real prophecy in Harry Potter).
Johnson has a gift for getting to the nitty gritty of Shakespeare, of wielding weighty language in a light way that invites the audience deeper into the heart of the material rather than making them mentally strive for the meaning of each line. When he delivers famous lines like, "Aye, there's the rub," or "Alas, poor Yorick," it's with such a naturalness that he could be the first person to ever say them.