My Kingdom for a Dramaturge

Dr. Gideon Rappaport sits at the end of a long table onstage at the Clayton E. Liggett, head bowed in concentration. On his left, the new Arden Edition of Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins, lies open on the table. On his right, a working draft of the script for Intrepid’s upcoming production of Hamlet is stacked neatly. Pencil in hand, he glances repeatedly from one to the other, flipping pages, making small notations, and nodding his head. But most of all, he’s listening.

On the other end of the table sits the cast, who have come together for the first read through of the play that will be mounted at the end of January. Even though this is technically their first rehearsal together, relationships and intentions have already begun to develop. The actors spend the evening trying out the words, pronouncing them trippingly on the tongue, and looking to Gideon, who will act as dramaturge for this production, for any adjustments. By the end of the rehearsal, he has individual notes for each player, as well as a few technical reminders for the whole cast: “Don’t hit the helping verbs. Seek out antithesis. Don’t emphasize pronouns.”

Prof. Rappaport in the zone

While most of the actors are Shakespearean veterans, Gideon is more than qualified to deliver his instruction. Currently an English teacher at La Jolla Country Day School, he has also taught Shakespeare in hallowed academic halls around the country, including on the campuses of Hamilton College, SUNY Cortland, Concordia University, and the University of New Hampshire. His Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Brandeis University doesn’t hurt his reputation as a Shakespearean guru, either.  Neither does the quote from the Bard that serves as the outgoing voicemail greeting on his cell phone.

Gideon’s stint as Intrepid’s dramaturge comes at an auspicious time. He is currently putting together a new annotated edition of Hamlet for students, teachers, actors, and directors which will feature Shakespeare’s text on one side, with his own commentary on the other.  This commentary will feature everything from thematic notes to definitions, language insights, contextual analysis, and other relevant information.  Needless to say, Gideon is currently fully entrenched in this project, and will therefore quickly and easily impart his readily available Danish prince knowledge upon anyone within earshot. “Just tell me when to stop talking,” he says often, and with a smile.

The first read of Hamlet

So, what exactly is it about Hamlet that makes this play so discussion-worthy? Easy. “It’s the single most misunderstood play of Shakespeare’s,” says Gideon. “People over the years have gone wrong about what it is really about.” He attributes this misunderstanding to the shifting priorities of society and the changing relevance of religion and spirituality.

“It’s a deeply spiritual play,” he continues. “It’s Shakespeare’s examination of how to live well in a morally complex universe where the choices seem unclear. How do you do the right thing when there seems to be paradoxical explanations of what that is? Hamlet’s story is a test case which generalizes to universal significance.”

Of course, that is a lot for a new cast to take in on the first rehearsal, and after some lengthy discourse on wood carving metaphors, the nature of evil, and revenge play traditions, Gideon finally takes a breath. “Of course, we have plenty of time to talk more about all that,” he says.

Aside from the questions of spirituality and universal significance, Gideon acknowledges that there is always one question on everyone’s mind when they are trying to unravel the tangled layers of Shakespeare’s longest play: Is Hamlet mad?

Well, Dr. Rappaport?

Gideon smiles the cryptic smile of a teacher who knows the answer but doesn’t want to give his students too much information.

“He definitely flies into passions,” he says carefully. “But, he also has moments of reason…”  We get it, Professor.  We’ll talk after the show.  — T.T.

Hamlet previews on January 26 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas.