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Playing the dark prince

Pound for pound, line for line, in every turn of phrase, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is one of the five or six plays that mark the golden era of the 17th century playwright’s career, says Danforth Comins, who portrays the title character in this summer’s outdoor season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“It’s humbling,” he says, “to have the opportunity to peer into a masterpiece.”

“Hamlet” is the tale of a troubled young prince. Deep in despair, he is devastated by his father’s death and disgusted by his mother’s hasty marriage to an uncle he despises. Haunted by his father’s ghost, who claims to have been assassinated by the despised uncle, Hamlet plots how he will avenge his father’s murder. And, in his obsession with death, he ponders his own mortality. He even questions “the felicity in death,” Comins says of the play’s religious overtones.

Directed by Lisa Peterson, “Hamlet” runs through Oct. 14 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

Though Comins has played Hamlet twice at other theaters, he still finds the “poetry profound” and the drama “fantastic.”

Speaking by phone between rehearsals, he says the role of Hamlet is “a unique challenge.”

“It takes all of your being,” he says.

Hamlet’s tormented mind and tortured soul are revealed in the five soliloquies the actor must perform.

If done right, Comins says, “You open up your insides and share … which is riveting and terrifying for both the performer and the audience.”

Comins notes that the play “has lasted across the divide of time because at its center it’s about a broken family … a family tragedy. The circumstances are heightened, yes, but it still relates.”

On the surface, there is the aspect that “children often do not enjoy their step-parents,” he says.

Then there is the deeper “great mystery” of death.

The questions surrounding “passing over are universal. … In every age, every culture, people have harbored fear and anxiety about the afterlife."

“It is a challenge and a joy to examine those fears.”

In his 12th season with OSF, Comins has performed in several of Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies, romances and historical dramas, including “Much Ado about Nothing,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Merchant of Venice,” “Othello,” “Richard II,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “As You Like It” and “Julius Caesar.” He has been cast in several American classics as well, including Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and William Inge’s “Bus Stop.”

He also performed in “Macbeth,” “Timon of Athens” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” with theater companies across the country before joining the OSF troupe.

For most, the prospect of playing Hamlet would be daunting; Comins says he is “blessed and honored” to have a go at the role for a third time.

He first portrayed the Danish prince 12 years ago as “a young man, both eager and angry.”

“I played it fast and furious,” he recalls.

Five years later, his performance was a bit more tempered, he says.

And, now, “a little wiser, I have a different perspective.”

“Wherever you meet a role in your life, you meet at that point in your life (experience),” he explains. “I’m different, it’s different. It’s like a new piece.

“I am reminded it is one of the great works.”

Comins notes that he is doubly blessed to perform this season in two of what he considers Shakespeare’s great masterpieces. His other role — Sir Andrew Aguecheek in “Twelfth Night” — allows him to exercise his comic muscle.

“It is one of Shakespeare’s comedic gems,” Comins says of the play that opened in February in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

And “a godsend of sorts,” he says. Because both plays are billed on the same day several times this summer, Aguecheek literally provides comic relief.

“You couldn’t ask for two more different roles,” Comins says of the contrast between the dim-witted, vain and clownish fool and the angst-ridden prince.

While “Twelfth Night” is directed by his favorite OSF director, Christopher Liam Moore, Comins says he is having the time of his life working with Peterson for a second time.

Like many OSF directors, Peterson has re-envisioned “Hamlet,” he says, “and yet, (the production) stays true to the core content and (Shakespeare’s) intentions.”

“Audiences come to the classics with pre-conceived notions,” he adds. “We want to make the experience unique, but not unravel a great masterpiece.”

Set in Denmark in the 1600s, costume and stage design reflect the Jacobean period that is the backdrop of Shakespeare’s original work, Comins says, but a haunting musical score devised by veteran OSF composer and sound designer Paul James Prendergast in collaboration with heavy metal guitarist Scott Kelly makes “the text sound brand new.”

Kelly will perform live during scene transitions, and the music will underscore Hamlet’s soliloquies.

“Scott’s music is the soundscape for Hamlet’s mindscape,” says Comins.

Kelly, who has performed for three decades with the metal rock band Neurosis, also will play the role of the Gravedigger in the production.

This staging of “Hamlet” is not a musical by any stretch of the imagination, but the score creates an atmosphere that will have the audience “leaning into the first and greatest ghost story,” Comins says.

“We want to shake up the audience’s expectations … give a fresh interpretation that has the audience engrossed, excited and surprised.”

The outdoor Elizabethan theater lends texture too, Comins says.

“Hamlet’s descent into darkness parallels with the summer evening’s descent into the darkness of night,” he says.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammy.asnicar@q.com.

Danforth Comins plays the title role in 'Hamlet.' OSF image