The Play Remains the Thing :: Steven Maler on 'Our American Hamlet'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 24, 2017

If you think the most famous actor in America in the months and years just after April 14, 1865, was John Wilkes Booth, you're probably right. But who held that distinction in the years leading up to that infamous date? Would you believe it was none other than Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes? It's true! The brothers -- plus their eldest brother, Junius Jr., and their sister, Asia, were the offspring of still another famed actor, Junius Brutus Booth.

Here's another bit of fascinating trivia: Edwin Booth's most famous role was that of Hamlet. Put all those delectably true pieces together and bring a playwright's sensibilities to them and you might just end up with something along the lines of Jake Broder's new play, "Our American Hamlet," which takes a piercing look at the brothers Booth and uses as its starting point the (also true) occasion upon which Edwin Booth, seeking to rehabilitate his family's honor, staged a Broadway production of "Hamlet." According to Wikipedia, Edwin Booth brought this production to the Winter Garden Theater at the start of the year 1866. All that Wikipedia has to say other than that the starring part "would eventually become his signature role."

Producing the play's world premiere is none other than the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, the organization that brings elaborate outdoor productions of The Bard to the Boston Common every summer. CSC's Foundng Artistic Director, Steven Maler, is directing the play; he had fascinating tales to tell EDGE about the production, and its eerie connection back to the man at the play's center -- Edwin Booth.


EDGE: This is a World Premiere. How did the project come to be produced by Commonwealth Shakespeare?

Steven Maler: Jake spent some time at Harvard and at A.R.T., and his time there overlapped, briefly, with me, but also overlapped with one of our mutual great friends, an actor named Carrie O'Malley. Carrie's been in a number of things that we've done at CSC, and she was a classmate of mine at the A.R.T. Institute. She knew Jake for some time and had been involved in earlier readings of this piece. She said, "You should really check this out." She sent it to me and I fell in love with the piece, and thought it would be a great piece for us to do at CFC, and was thrilled that Jake was as excited about that happening as we were.

EDGE: That's sometimes how things work, isn't it?

Steven Maler: It's so funny how there are so many different ways that projects come together. Carrie is an extremely smart theater person, and very savvy, and knows what plays might make sense for what organizations. And she knows my work, and our organization, really well.

We were able to do an informal reading of the play this past summer when we had our full company up and running on the Boston Common [for the summer 2016 production of 'Love's Labour's Lost']. We snuck out a couple afternoons after we had the show up on the Common and did, like, a ten-hour workshop of the piece. Just hearing it being performed by the actors, even in that very much script-in-the-hand, sitting-around-the-table kind of way, made me love the play even more. It's a challenging play, and it was great to hear it come to life.

EDGE: Aside from the title, what was it you loved so much about 'Our American Hamlet?'

[Laughter]

Steven Maler: The writing style is very fragmented and lean, and there's a series a different shards of scenes. You have this framing device, this really provocative and interesting frame, but then the story is told in this very pointillistic way. That framing device is that just about six months after John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president, his older bother, who was the most famous actor in America at the time, tried to refurbish the family name, which was deeply, deeply, important to him, by producing 'Hamlet' on Broadway. It caused a near riot. The play is framed by that performance; we start the play backstage in the dressing room, before that performance begins, and we end with that performance. Everything in the middle is a really interesting examination of this very complex family, and you come away thinking, 'Why does everybody remember the name of John Wilkes Booth, who failed at just about everything other than killing the president, and no one remembers Edwin Booth?' He was so famous at the time that he could go out on the road and earn fifty thousand dollars a month in fees, which is about two million dollars today. So, he could make [the equivalent of] twenty-four million dollars a year [in today's money] as an actor on the stage, which is just a testament to how extraordinarily successful he was. Way before the era of social media and television and such, he would walk down the streets of cities in the Midwest and people would know exactly who he was. He was incredibly well regarded and famous, but turned out to be completely eclipsed by this act of violence by his brother. So the question is, Who do we remember, and why do we remember them? I think that's one thing Jake is really interested in.

EDGE: You're right about Edwin Booth being eclipsed. Before researching for this interview, I had no idea that John Wilkes Booth had an older brother at all, much less that we was such a successful actor.

Steven Maler: Exactly, and the piece has been meticulously researched. It's all based on fact and based on this very interesting family, and the father, [Junius Brutus Booth], was a very famous English actor who had eloped, essentially, from England and came to America with his, I guess, second wife -- though he never really divorced his first wife, the woman who was the mother of John Wilkes and Edwin. There's also a daughter, Asia, who figures into the story. She ends up marrying a guy named John Sleeper Clarke, who owned a lot of theaters, and in fact that was part of the empire that Edwin built with his brother in law -- not just being a successful performer, but also a theater owner. It was really a powerhouse of a family.

EDGE: And yet, this seems like an archetypally American play about redemption: It's got a main character seeking second act in his professional life; a nation-defining tragedy; and maybe a hint of conspiracy theory?

Steven Maler: It's such a fascinating play, and so pertinent, I think, to now -- to out obsession with the celebration of violence and the celebration of people who commit violence. It's woven into the fabric of our country in some way. And there's also a great Cain and Abel story in the form of the two brothers, Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, who had a very intense rivalry throughout their lives. This play really brings that to life. And there's a broken and dysfunctional father, who was a great actor but also a very damaged man. He handed off his brokenness to his two sons, and they reacted in different ways to that legacy. It's a very dense piece. It covers a lot of ground in a very tight 80 minutes.

EDGE: When actors originate roles, they sometimes become kind of famous for that, if the roles turn out to become a major part of the theater canon; there's a kind of glory to that. Is it similar for a director who's overseeing a world premiere? Do you feel conscious of a responsibility that comes along with originating a play?

Steven Maler: I think there is a special -- I don't know if it's a responsibility, but certainly an opportunity in the sense that this is completely tabula rasa and virgin territory, a fresh snowy field that no one has traveled through. It makes it very exciting, I think, for the team, because there's no received notion for how it's meant to be done. That's a problem with these big iconic plays, like 'Hamlet,' or 'Romeo and Juliet,' or 'Macbeth.' Most people have seen versions of those, and most people have a specific notions in their head of what the ideal or perfect Rosalind is, or the ideal or perfect Hamlet or Othello. But when you're working on a new piece that is this completely open field, well then, it makes for a really exhilarating process in terms of diving into it.

EDGE: Are you discovering -- or are you inventing -- any similarities or parallels between 'Our American Hamlet' and the Shakespearean original?

Steven Maler: No, I don't know about that. But what is really fascinating is that Jacob Fishel, who we've cast as Edwin -- let me tell you this wonderful story. I've known Jacob for some time to be a really wonderful, classically trained, Juilliard actor who's done a lot of Shakespeare and a lot of classical theater, but also a lot of contemporary theater. He did a reading of a play with us some times ago. I thought of him [for this part] -- 'This is the guy we should get to do it,' and I called him about this play. [He told me,] 'This is really bizarre, because I was asked some time ago by The Players Club' -- which was founded by Edwin Booth in his home in New York -- 'I was asked by them to do an evening of readings from Edwin Booth's prompt book for his own production of "Hamlet."'

I find it uncanny that he had been this close to this piece in this particular way. Jacob's been inside of Edwin's understanding of 'Hamlet' in a way that very few actors have had the opportunity to explore or experience. He's obviously an incredible actor, but this experience has made him the perfect actor for this piece. And, of course, the performance style has so changed over the last 150 years or so -- the way that we approach Shakespeare is so completely different, and part of what the play looks at, and part of what Edwin was struggling with, was how to break out from under his father's shadow. His father was also an acclaimed Shakespearian actor, so Edwin's technique was, in some way, a reaction against his father; but even to us today it would feel very, very different, if we were to step back in time and see how Shakespeare was being performed at that time. What's going to be fun for us is how his father performed -- because there are moments when we bring his father on stage -- and how do his two sons perform Shakespeare, and then how do we integrate that into how we're doing it now? There are layers of performative style that we'll be exploring in this piece.

EDGE: What about the rest of the cast?

Steven Maler: Oh, it's a terrific cast. Jake Broder himself is going [to be in it]. There's a role in the play that is sort of a storyteller, sort of the confidante of Edwin, [named] Adam [who] is in fragments of scenes that they have throughout the play. So Jake is going to be playing Adam, and Jacob is going to be playing Edwin.

There's also a really wonderful actor from L.A., a man named Joe Fria who has worked on the project before with Jake. He's coming in to play John Wilkes for us. The enormously fantastic and wonderful Will Lyman is playing the paterfamilias, Junius Booth. Maureen Keiller, who is also so fantastic, is playing both wives of the father -- the one he moved to America with, Amery Ann Holmes, and the one that he left behind in London, a woman named Adelaide Delannoy. And then a woman named Lucy Davenport is playing Asia -- she also happens to be Jake Broder's wife. She's an English actress with really extraordinary credits behind her. She's absolutely lovely in the role. I'm very excited to work with her. And then the eldest brother, Junius Booth -- there were actually four kids -- is played by a man named Kelby Aiken who is, again, another wonderful local Boston-based actor. It's a fifty-fifty crowd, both folks from Boston and folks from outside of Boston, which is always a fun kind of blend.


"Our American Hamlet" runs March 23 - April 2 at the Sorenson Center for the Arts at Babson College. For tickets and more information, please go to http://commshakes.org/performances/performance/171

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.