As one can glean from the extensive doubling in the headnote, the Hoboken-based Actors Shakespeare Company is a company that emulates, in its organizational structure, both the stage performance and management practices of Shakespeare's time. The actors contribute to the production and administration according to their talents and abilities, as did members of The Lord Chamberlain's Men. Production staff members adopt Elizabethan-era titles (like Playmaster instead of Director) to more accurately reflect their roles. And on stage, parts are divided among twelve players, as they probably would have been when Shakespeare's company produced Hamlet.
The historical scholarship behind the company's highly collaborative organization also creates their audience-oriented, conversational performance style. In this way the company successfully simulates the pre-fourth-wall acting conventions for which Shakespeare was writing. The result in their production of Hamlet was a two-layered, metatheatrical experience: on the one hand, the audience was invited, from the start, to view the story through the lens of scholarship. On the other, the conversational style established dynamic relationships between the characters and the audience. In other words, ASC's Hamlet engaged the [End Page 89] audience to be aware of both the story and the frame, and to enjoy the production on both levels.
This two-layered experience began during the preshow, which was designed to both entertain and inform the waiting audience. Anthony Bez, the company's composer, performed his own guitar arrangements of period pieces, such as John Dowland's "Tarletones Riserrectione," a lament on the death of a popular clown. Bez paused afterwards to describe to the audience the possible topical connection to the Yorick speech. He also accompanied baritone Michael Hajek, who sang Dowland's "Come Ye Heavy States of Night" and provided an explanation of the lyrics' relevance to Hamlet and Ophelia's suicidal melancholy. The musical numbers were followed by an energetic announcement by Colin Ryan (Laertes) in order to explain the concepts and history behind the performance style. These addresses, along with the extensive program notes, give the clear impression that the company is very concerned to keep the audience engaged on the metacritical level.
But this did not make the performance into a kind of seminar. On the contrary, inviting the audience into the intellectual process helped to create lively, diverse relationships between the characters and the audience, which added depth and emotion to the storytelling. In 1.2, Claudius addressed the audience as the Danish Court in a superficial manner, and Gertrude was very eager for that audience's acceptance. After "The Mousetrap," this shell cracked and Claudius found it necessary to be more honest with us—his monologue in the confessional was more an appeal to the audience than a prayer—and Gertrude became reproachful, angry with not only Hamlet for his grandstanding, but with us for witnessing her embarrassment. Polonius, on the other hand, saw the audience as an opportunity to flaunt his rhetorical dexterity. His advice in 1.3 was given to the whole theatre and involved several crosses as he singled out different audience members, only addressing Laertes directly with his final admonition, "To thine own self be true." Also, his asides in 2.2 set up Hamlet as the object of both his and our consideration—it was...