Michael Urie seems to be in two places at once.
The New York-based actor is in Washington reviving his leading turn in the modern dress, surveillance state “Hamlet,” director Michael Kahn’s final Shakespearean play before he retires after running the Shakespeare Theatre Company for over three decades; that starts Wednesday. Urie is also directing “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns,” the solo show by Drew Droege that’s part of Studio Theatre’s new Showroom series this month. It begins Tuesday.
Omnipresence seems to be Urie’s thing lately. In late June he produced the five-day reading series Pride Plays at Manhattan’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and even found himself playing Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg onstage. Online you can catch him in the new 10-minute film “Lavender.” This spring he hosted the Drama Desk Awards for the fourth consecutive year and made a splash at this spring’s Met Opera Gala, meeting the “camp” theme by wearing a split-down-the-middle dress and tux combo.
Urie, 38, planted a foot in D.C. theater with his solo performance in “Buyer and Cellar” — about an employee running shops bizarrely maintained in Barbra Streisand’s home — at the STC in 2014. He recently found time to chat in Takoma Park before scooting to a “Hamlet” rehearsal down the street. Urie smiles easily as he talks, and his eyes frequently widen as he details what he’s up to.
Q: Anything particular you're revisiting with "Hamlet" now?
A: It’s really exciting to get back into the words. They become second nature, and then you revisit it and they come back pretty quickly. But because they’re new again, I’m finding they mean new things. You hear them in a different way.
Q: For example?
A: The opening speech, “This too too sullied flesh,” which is usually after the second scene. In our play you get to meet Hamlet and find out what his problem is right away, which I think is a brilliant edit and sets the audience up for who he is. Now it feels like an extension of his grief. He’s been through his father’s funeral, his uncle’s coronation and his mother’s wedding to his uncle, and it feels like his speech is coming right out of all of that. The thing that’s been really exciting is imagining that I’ve just burst out of this room into this other room to say, “I wish that I could melt.”
Q: Is it fun to play Hamlet?
A: Yup (laughs). It’s so fun. He’s a dazzling character. He’s smart. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s a great actor. He might have been an actor. We really leaned into how much he loves the players. He says, “They are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,” which is one of my favorite lines. He thinks the people who make theater are the people who are going to tell the future what we were like. I think if he hadn’t been royal, he might have been an actor.
Q: Did you have a period of being intimidated by the part?
A: For sure. I was really bold in Michael’s [Kahn’s] acting class at Julliard. When I was 21, I probably was not intimidated by it. It wasn’t until later that I realized I should be intimidated. Later I was Horatio in a production with Hamish Linklater, who is a master. It was then I had a handle on it. I thought, it’s scary, and I’m glad I’m not playing Hamlet now . . . but I think I could do it.
And there’s stuff I’ve stolen from Hamish. Watching how personal he made it made me realize I could use myself the way he’s using himself. It’s a character you can bring to yourself. It’s not like Richard III or Falstaff, where you have to become somebody else.
Q: How much Shakespeare have you done since Julliard?
A: Not as much as I would have liked. I want to bring Michael Kahn out of retirement and do some plays with him. It’s so cool at the Shakespeare Theatre because it’s a big production, huge cast, packed audiences, they’ve got money and actors’ faces on lampposts. I think it would also be exciting to do something grungy and gritty in a basement in New York.
Q: How do you have time to also direct "Bright Colors and Bold Patterns"?
A: Because Jeff Hiller’s a genius and did it already. Jeff replaced Drew Droege in New York. When Drew couldn’t do this run at Studio, that was our first thought. I can spend a day with Jeff, figure out the space with him, figure out how the laughs play in this room. That’s what I learned doing “Buyer and Cellar” for so long; once you know it, and because it’s all you, it really becomes about: “In this room, how does it work?” So I’ll have a nice long day with Jeff, and I think that’s all we’re going to need.
Q: How did you decide to produce the Pride Plays reading series?
A: [Co-producer] Doug Nevin and I had been talking about finding a space to do LGBTQ work in New York and really be able to do the plays that aren’t the plays that always get done. We did 19 programs in five days. Over 200 artists came in and out. We did some crazy things. We did “Some Men” by Terrence McNally with 40 actors; it was originally done with eight actors playing over 50 roles. We asked Terrence if he would be interested in adding a scene, because so much has happened since 2007 in the gay community. So he wrote a new scene that we premiered about Pete Buttigieg and Chasten [Glezman] the night before their wedding. I played Mayor Pete. It was amazing.
We opened the festival with a production of “Our Town” featuring a cast of entirely transgender, nonconforming, gender-neutral and non-binary actors. The [Thornton] Wilder estate was thrilled. They couldn’t have been more gracious with the rights. And the play just lifted off the stage.
Q: Want to describe what you wore to the Met Gala?
A: Somebody on Twitter described it as quadruple drag, which I thought was clever. It really wanted to be two sides of me. If I’m going to wear a dress, I would want to wear a boot and be hairy and unshaven. And if I’m going to be in a pretty tux, I’d want it to be glam and pretty. So we realized we could do that with two looks — two sides of me. When we were getting ready, I opened the invitation, and on the cover it was this Victorian half man, half woman. It was such a confidence booster: Oh, we got camp right!
Q: What is it that you like about the Drama Desk Awards?
A: What’s cool is that you can have an actor who does a three- or four-week run off-off-Broadway nominated against somebody in a multimillion dollar Broadway musical, and it’s an even playing field. And as the guy who’s the entertainment for the evening, it’s such a good crowd, because they just want to be there. It’s not the Tonys. The pressure’s off a little bit. And they let me make a little movie to open it every year.
Q: Are you familiar with the idea of summer vacations?
A: I’ve heard of that. This is sort of my vacation. I’ve been looking forward to “Hamlet” — once we’re running and not rehearsing anymore — like a vacation. It’ll be hot, and on my days free there’s a pool where I’m staying. And (smiles) we’re doing “Hamlet.”
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122 or shakespearetheatre.org.
Dates: Wednesday through July 21.
Tickets: Free via online lottery (which opens July 9) or in line the day of the show (200 walk-up tickets available each day). Limited seats available via subscription and the $200 Friends of Free for All program.