Elizabeth Swain knows Shakespeare.
So, folks should believe when she says that Hamlet is not indecisive and the “to be or not to be” speech isn’t about suicide.
A Shakespearean expert — scholar, director, actor — Swain is no stranger to the Antaeus stage, a place where they are committed to bringing classical theater to life.
She last directed “Measure for Measure,” which had to close before the pandemic. Now, from Sunday, May 15, to Monday, June 20, she is directing Shakespeare’s most complex and transcendent play to their stage — “Hamlet.”
The doomed prince of Denmark lives in a world where heaven and hell are real, where people believe in ghosts and the state of one’s soul was of prime importance.
When he is visited by the ghost of his father — a ghost who comes to him from the depths of hell to tell him he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle — he must choose between integrity and revenge.
Swain said Hamlet wants to learn whether the ghost is telling the truth. If the ghost is lying, Hamlet will doom his own soul to hell. Once he learns through the play-within-a-play that the ghost was being truthful, he knows immediately what he must do. However, his uncle sends him packing to England.
“Hamlet,” which Swain has cut down to two and a half hours, continues to be relevant even for those who do not hold the same religious beliefs as the young prince and his contemporaries.
“He’s a young man who is facing great moral dilemmas in a totally corrupt world,” Swain said. “And he has to find his way to the truth. That’s a moral journey that he takes, and people can relate to that.”
The play is a serious tragedy of revenge. However, Swain said it’s filled with levity and is highly theatrical.
“By (Hamlet) pretending to be mad, he actually produces an enormous amount of comedy,” Swain said. “Also, he has this whole thing with the play and the actors who come in. He tells them how to act. … The play has all of these theatrical elements, which is immensely interesting.”
Add to that the 10 “fabulous actors.”
“It’s a very collaborative process that we’re going through,” Swain said. “We’re talking a lot about what it means, and I take input from actors. I don’t tell them what to do all the time.”
Swain has directed it twice before, once in the mid-’80s with an all-woman cast at Barnard College and again in the ’90s in Harlem with an all-Black cast. This time, she has what she calls a “jumbled up” cast.
Playing the titular role is Ramón de Ocampo, who was also in Swain’s “Measure for Measure” and who has worked with her previously.
“He is extraordinary,” Swain said. “He’s so constantly inventive. He’s a committed, charismatic actor, which is what you have to have for that role.”
Playing his mother, Gertrude, and stepfather/uncle Claudius are the real-life husband-and-wife team of Veralynn Jones and Gregg T. Daniel.
Swain met Jones when Swain came to Los Angeles in 2008 and Jones was looking for a director for “Medea.” A few years later, she asked Daniel to perform in “Master Harold and the Boys,” which she was directing in New Jersey.
“They are very strong actors,” Swain said. “Gregg also works a lot as a director around LA and other places, but he’s a fabulous actor.”
The cast has only 10 actors, which means they do a lot of doubling. Others in the cast include Jeanne Syquia as Ophelia, Peter Van Norden as Polonius, Michael Kirby as Laertes, Adam Smith as Horatio, Joel Swetow as Marcellus, Lloyd Roberson II as Rosencrantz, and Sally Hughes as Guildenstern.
“Doubling up on roles and cross-gender casting is nothing new,” Swain said. “In Shakespeare’s time, like now, it was often a matter of expediency; all the actors were men, and they often simply didn’t have enough actors. In our production, Sally Hughes takes on four characters in the space of 10 pages, which should be something to watch. She literally has to run off the stage, switch costumes and run back on five times in about 10 minutes.”
Because of the characters’ religious beliefs and their willingness to accept the presence of ghosts, Swain ensured the play would not be set in modern times. Rather, it is in an imaginary world.
Designed by Dianne K. Graebner, the costumes will have Renaissance silhouettes but accommodate the need for quick changes. They will help create this world of a place in between times.
“Really what we’re doing is inventing our world, our period,” Swain said. “It is definitely not today, even though the relevance to today’s world will be there.”
The set is taking inspiration from the 1911-12 production of Hamlet done at the Moscow Art Theatre by Konstantin Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig, a production that revolutionized the staging of Shakespeare’s plays in the 20th century.
Craig created a series of screens that moved for each scene, thereby having arrangements that reflect Hamlet’s state of mind. While they were called screens, Swain points out that they were primarily vertical columns.
“My set designer went with that, so we have all these columns on the stage where people can hide and run around,” Swain said. “There will be all sorts of possibilities. It’s an imaginative world.”
Her scenic designer is Stephen Gifford. Other members of the creative design team include lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, sound designer Cricket S. Myers, props master Shen Heckel, and violence designer Ned Mochel.
Kaite Brandt is Swain’s assistant director, and Taylor Anne Cullen is the production stage manager.
As for the “to be or not to be” speech, Swain said the melancholy teenagers have it all wrong.
“This will shock everybody,” Swain said. “The soliloquy to be or not to be is not about suicide. It’s about why people don’t commit suicide.”
And those who still have doubts, Antaeus has a ticket for you.
“Hamlet” by the Antaeus Theatre Company
WHEN: Various times through Monday, June 20
WHERE: Kiki and David Gindler Performing Arts Center,
110 E. Broadway, Glendale
COST: Tickets start at $20
INFO: 818-506-1983, antaeus.org