Maybe you know your Hamlets, from Barrymore to Branagh. You’ve got some old bootleg footage of Jacobi lying around and recordings of Gielgud on vinyl, and you flew to London to catch Tennant at the RSC. Or maybe you’re a high schooler eking out a C in English and now your class has to go see some stupid old play called “Hamlet.” Everyone’s invited to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest production of the classic, opening Tuesday, but as far as its star is concerned, this one’s for the newcomers.
“We’re not doing ‘Hamlet’ for people who KNOW ‘Hamlet,’ ” says Michael Urie, who plays the Danish prince with stepdaddy issues. “We’re doing half a dozen student matinees and I think about [the kids] more now than I think about actors who played Hamlet before, or actors who’ve been in ‘Hamlet’ before, or scholars or drama students. Why would I do this play for someone who’s seen ‘Hamlet’ a million times?”
This isn’t the millionth “Hamlet” for Urie, known for his roles on TV’s “Ugly Betty” and “Younger,” but it’s not his first either — and it’s not even his first with director Michael Kahn, the longtime artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company who is retiring next year. In fact, the two met when Urie was Kahn’s student in an acting class at Juilliard.
“I did the nunnery scene, and I did ‘to be or not to be’ for him,” Urie says. “It was pretty ballsy, to bring that scene into Michael’s acting class.” (His partner in the “nunnery scene,” in which Hamlet says some very mean things to girlfriend Ophelia, was a fellow student named Jessica Chastain, who has since done nothing.)
Till now, Urie and Kahn had never worked together professionally, but they kept in touch over the years, forging a relationship that led to a certain shorthand in the rehearsal room for “Hamlet.”
“I trust him implicitly,” Urie says of his former teacher. “He understands Shakespeare so inherently, in such an intellectual way and such a visceral way. I know that he wants me to be inventive and bring lots of ideas to the table, and also be OK with letting things go when necessary.”
And with a play as iconic as “Hamlet,” inventiveness is important. It just can’t be more important than everything else.
“There is the temptation to say, ‘What can I do that’s different?’ ” Urie says. “What I realized quite quickly is what’s going to be singular about my Hamlet is me, not any idea that I have. Maybe there was an idea in my head, ‘Oh, I’ll do this, and everyone will say that was his big choice playing Hamlet,’ but ultimately it’s going to be whatever we find in the [rehearsal] room. If I try to implement an idea, it will become a play about an idea, as opposed to finding it from the inside.”
So Urie isn’t taking the stage with an eye on giving “Hamlet” scholars something they’ve never seen before.
“I want it to be accessible to everyone, not just a different take on ‘Hamlet’ for someone who knows everything about ‘Hamlet,’ ” he says. “Ten years ago, I probably would have wanted to most impress those people. I have since absolved myself from that.”
Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW; Tue. through March 4, $44-$118.