Hamlet – Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School

Hamlet by the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School in West Chester, PA

March 23, 2022

Review submitted by Clara Steege of Conestoga High School

To be or not to be? Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School (PALCS) sought to answer this age-old question through an inventive reimagining of Hamlet, turning out an undeniably successful result in the process. 

Out of Shakespeare’s many notable works, Hamlet may be the most well-known. Part of the reason for its success is the universality of its main character; Hamlet’s self-doubt and inner turmoil are not only significant drivers of the plot, but also allow the audience to empathize with him intimately. As all the characters navigate the challenges of Danish royal life – including death, betrayal, and madness – they also explore the nature of the human condition. 

PALCS added sophistication to the play as they interpreted how Hamlet would have played out in modern times, complete even with social media. Though certainly a lofty goal, they rose to the challenge with great skill. 

Perhaps the show’s greatest stand-out was its phenomenal acting. Nola Dowd led the cast as Hamlet, elevating every scene with her emotiveness. This ability was especially apparent when she interacted with other characters, highlighted by her snark with Polonius, harshness with Ophelia, and defiance with Claudius. These actors then played off her energy to further develop their own performances. 

In the role of Hamlet’s nefarious uncle, Trinitee Hoffman inhabited Claudius’s condescending nature with confident body language, dismissive facial expressions, and thoughtful vocal intonation. Natalie Petro, as Ophelia, was also strong throughout, but especially shone when she got to convey her character’s madness. She took her sung parts beyond a demonstration of her lovely voice by incorporating a captivating eeriness that enthralled the audience. William Bergbauer was remarkable as well, exhibiting both a depth of emotion and outstanding fencing skills as Laertes. 

Further enhancing the production were various tech elements, the most prominent of which was an impressive video wall as part of the set. This was fully utilized to display social media posts, prerecorded security camera feed, and live video from onstage. Along with perfectly synchronized lighting cues, the video wall helped set the mood in every scene. Rounding out the set, screen doors were used with lighting to show eavesdropping silhouettes, and simple bench pieces were constantly reconfigured to create a wide range of settings. Also notable was the makeup, with sophisticated details like a ghost look that included prosthetics. 

Especially considering that their show featured death so heavily, Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School imbued their performance of Hamlet with an impressive display of vitality. The creative interpretation of setting, evocative displays of emotion by the cast members, and excellent tech came together to produce a truly outstanding production. 

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Review submitted by Willa Hollinger of Abington Friends School.

When performing Shakespeare for modern-day audiences, there is often a disconnect between the language of the play and its reception by viewers. Specifically, how can the complex world of Shakespeare be made relatable to high school students? In PA Leadership Charter School’s recent production of Hamlet, the tragedy was directed with a distinct spin to attract younger viewers: Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, was a social media celebrity. Integrating familiar formats like TikTok videos, this modern take aimed to engage young viewers in Hamlet’s story as he becomes increasingly determined to avenge his father and kill his uncle.

The set of the actual play was spare, minimalistic, and effective at creating different spaces without much effort. To add to the slightly futuristic feel, a wall of monitors were mounted on the back wall, which notably portrayed the ghostly apparitions of the late King Hamlet in an almost holographic way. The screens were also used to perform several of Hamlet’s soliloquies, wherein videos of ensemble members popped up one by one on a monitor to recite a few lines each. Though creative, the decision to split up these soliloquies often took away from Hamlet’s personal, confiding thoughts.

Indeed, some of the brightest moments in the show were when leading or supporting roles got to shine on their own. Hamlet (Nola Dowd) excelled at this daunting role, seldom shying away from her character’s dark, comic, and complex spiral into madness. Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Trinitee Hoffman) played a consistently articulate and three-dimensional rival, providing a strong contrast to Hamlet. Another bright spot was Ophelia (Natalie Petro), who profoundly captured the grief caused by Hamlet’s rash actions in an ethereal combination of singing, costuming and expressive makeup. Impressively, the final climactic fencing scene between Hamlet and Laertes (William Bergbauer) showcased student choreography by Bergbauer himself.

Though Shakespeare often requires big expressions to be fully conveyed, the full ensemble remained solidly engaged throughout the story, clearly eager to bring the tragedy to life. Aiding them in their acting during emotionally dark moments of the play, dramatic lighting and sound effects were often added to build the atmosphere. These cues were especially important for including the audience in the story, perhaps even more than the use of social media, because they encouraged the actors to break loose and emote more recklessly. In such a raw piece of tragedy as Hamlet, this willingness to be vulnerable on stage is ultimately one of the best ways for the actors to connect with their audience.

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