Teen Angst and Rebellion in GDS’ Hamlet

Caleigh Vergeer, left, Elias Rodriguez, Jacqueline Metzger, Leila Jackson and Bryce Savoy in GDS’ taped play (Source: GDS on Vimeo).

GDS’ 2021 virtual production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was marked by themes of rage, exhaustion and a fight for control. The audience struggled alongside Hamlet and his friends, becoming fully immersed in their world of teenage angst. Meticulous design of visuals and sound, vivid performances and an overarching sense of fluidity all came together to produce this masterful rendition of Hamlet.

The show was dedicated to Beryl Metzger, mother of sophomore Jacqueline Metger, who passed away in November. Auditions took place in September, and the original plan was to finish the show in December. Its release was delayed until the beginning of second semester in the wake of Metzger’s loss.

The show follows Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. His father dies at the hands of his power-hungry uncle Claudius, who then marries his brother’s widow and ascends to the throne. Hamlet is told of his uncle’s act by his father’s ghost, who commands him to seek revenge. Madness ensues, and the story ends in tragedy.

GDS’s production was unlike any other; images from locations scouted by set designers were the backdrop, costuming and makeup were coordinated via virtual consultations and actors performed to their cameras, interacting with each other through Zoom. It was pre-recorded, but still felt more like a live play than a movie, as each scene for the most part was filmed in one take. Over 100 people were in attendance for the show’s premiere, which ended in a question-and-answer session with director Laura Rosberg, the cast and the crew. 

Two aspects of the show stood out for their ingenuity with the video medium. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father spoke to Hamlet, audio technology was used to warp actor Wesley Brubaker’s voice and add echo. In the sword fight scene near the end of the play, the combatants faced their cameras and reacted to each other’s movements, making their physical actions clear to the audience while still showing their facial expressions.

Senior Caleigh Vergeer, who played Hamlet’s eponymous hero cross-gender, said she used method acting techniques to fulfill director Laura Rosberg’s vision of a Hamlet production centered on youth counterculture. In preparation for her role, Vergeer listened to punk rock music, played around with similarly styled fashion, watched other performers and, of course, read and studied the play. 

Vergeer also credited the crew with developing her performance, saying that they created the world which the actors then brought to life. “The costumes, getting into full-on angry teenager rebel gear every day with the makeup and the leather jacket and the necklaces” allowed her to transform into Hamlet, she said in an interview. “I felt like I am in a different space now, I am not Caleigh anymore, I’m not in my house anymore.”

Actors performed in front of virtual backgrounds, arranged in a grid of boxes through Zoom (Source: GDS on Vimeo).

As part of the GDS theater team’s effort to make the show their own, history teacher Topher Dunne created unique vocal musical scores to accompany the existing text and portray the intended emotions of certain scenes, a task which he called “daunting.” 

Dunne described his work for the play as an open process. After composing the music in accordance with his and Rosberg’s interpretation of the emotional context of the text and consulting with singers, Dunne was able to step back and watch how his work fit into the play. “I wrote it up without really knowing how it was going to go, and then to see it kind of morph after I left it with them was neat,” Dunne said.

Marketing was also a crucial part of the show, and the creation of a dynamic poster was vital in drawing people to the play; the artwork must visually encapsulate the show’s meaning through symbols and evocation of emotions. Sophomore Ava Blum created the piece, first sketching it and then tracing it on photoshop. Her goal was to “grab your attention,” which she noted the poster does literally as Hamlet’s hands seem to pop out of the image, reaching toward the viewer.

Intention was put into each of the poster’s details. The backdrop of scribbles represents Hamlet’s mental state throughout the play, the crown floating above Hamlet’s head represents the looming presence of the kingship and the word “Hamlet” is written in a ghost-like font in reference to his father’s specter. Blum drew a mask onto Hamlet’s face to demonstrate Hamlet’s struggle to fully express himself and to reference the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The creative license of the show’s contributors made it a performance to remember. As a perk of the virtual format of the play, it is still available for viewing, but only for a limited time! Watch it at https://www.gds.org/arts/theater/fall-show.