Two For The Show


Jeffrey Carlson and Robert Cuccioli Reunite for Hamlet

When Shakespeare Theatre Company audiences last saw them, in Michael Kahn’s acclaimed production of Lorenzaccio, Jeffrey Carlson was killing Robert Cuccioli. “He killed me in Lorenzaccio,” Cuccioli protests, “and now they get us back down here for another play where he’s going to kill me?” “Apparently, we come as a package deal,” Carlson jokes. Offstage, the two display the same ready chemistry that makes their onstage collaborations so memorable. It seems only fitting that they should return to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s stage together, to play two of the leading roles in Hamlet under Kahn’s direction.

Since their celebrated turns in Lorenzaccio two years ago, Carlson and Cuccioli have found artistic success in an astonishing range of projects. Cuccioli, best known for his work in musical theatre, spent a year headlining the hit Off-Broadway revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. He also bolstered his classical credentials with a lauded turn as Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In addition to leading roles in several modern plays, Carlson played Prince Hal in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV that toured to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Quite unexpectedly, his next project became a sensation; playing an eccentric rock star on the soap opera All My Children, Carlson portrayed the first coming-out story of a transgender character on American daytime television. “I didn’t anticipate all of the media attention, and the pop-culture status,” Carlson says. “But what’s been wonderful is that I know the story has affected people, and it’s helped others in their personal lives.”

Hamlet represents a new challenge for both actors, offering them some of the most demanding and rewarding material ever written. But the invitation to face this challenge now caught both by surprise. “Edward Albee had said to me, ‘I can’t wait to see your Hamlet,’” Carlson recalls. “And I said, ‘I’ll never play that part.’” Cuccioli agrees: “I never thought of myself in the role of Claudius. I didn’t think I was old enough to do it.”

Both credit Michael Kahn with dispelling their doubts and encouraging them to meet the challenge. Carlson couldn’t imagine playing Hamlet without the guidance of Kahn, his teacher and mentor since his days at The Juilliard School. “He and I have developed a shorthand, in terms of the way we talk and work,” Carlson says. “I carry with me so many of the things he taught me.” Cuccioli had never acted for Kahn before Lorenzaccio, but he needed no prompting to return for Hamlet. “I feel I do some of my best work with Michael,” Cuccioli says. “He makes me ask questions of myself, dig deeper into the role and take risks. So I wanted to come back and have that experience again.”

Above all, both were eager to join forces again. “I think we’re a really good team, Jeffrey and I,” Cuccioli notes, and Carlson thinks he knows why: “We have a similar way of working—spontaneity, openness, an appreciation of language. And we both believe in a way of bringing classical texts to life, not just as an intellectual exercise.” Kahn encourages their exploration of the play, urging them to rely on the text instead of any preconceived notions.

Carlson’s task is especially daunting, and his familiarity with his collaborators helps to ease the unique problems Hamlet presents. “Just having to dive into where he is emotionally, and into where he is intellectually, is overwhelming in itself,” Carlson says. Beyond the extraordinary energy and intelligence the role requires, few other parts bring as much history with them. “There have been so many interpretations of this play, and that can be intimidating,” Carlson acknowledges. “I’ve had to put that out of my head, and say, ‘This is going to be my Hamlet, based on what I’ve mined out of the text.’” He takes comfort in the knowledge that he is not alone in the endeavor: “I wouldn’t want to take this on without the safety of familiar faces and familiar minds.”

Akiva Fox, Literary Associate  ©The Shakespeare Theatre