High drama in Jersey City

New Shakespearean troupe to present 'Hamlet' at Grace Church

The new company will perform in various venues around Jersey City. Photo by Will O'Hare
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The new company will perform in various venues around Jersey City. Photo by Will O'Hare

Sean Hagerty, founder and artistic director of Shakespeare@ in Jersey City, didn’t start out as a Shakespearean actor. That happened long after he’d established himself as a performer. He was studying in England, and a colleague cajoled him into seeing “The Tempest.”

Hagerty grew up in West Virginia. “I was born and raised in the mountains,” he said. He had worked in community theater but had no desire to perform in a Shakespeare play.

“I went to Seattle for awhile as an actor, then came to New York,” he said, working locally before going off to England to study.

“My experience was typical of middle school in the United States, where students sit down in the seventh or eighth grade and are expected to read Shakespeare,” he said. “This is like trying to understand Beethoven by being handed the sheet music. I was put off by it as a young actor.”

The ‘aha’ moment

But once he saw “The Tempest,” Hagerty was hooked.

“It blew my mind,” he said. “I hadn’t seen Shakespeare performed before that. I knew I had to do it. That’s when I understood, Shakespeare isn’t meant to be read; it’s meant to be performed.”

Hagerty went on to graduate with distinction with a master’s degree in Shakespeare and Theatre from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Bard’s 16th century birthplace. He currently teaches Shakespeare and Style at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York.

Hagerty returned to the United States 11 years ago, settling in Jersey City. He saw Jersey City as a good place to start a Shakespearean theater company.

“I’ve not seen anything like this in Jersey City,” he said. “Jersey City has had a huge art scene for a long time. And a lot has changed over the last 10 to 15 years. This is the right place. It’s an exciting time to be here.”

He believes that the community and artists alike can grow in empathy and humanity by exposure to a wide range of ideas and cultures.

Shakespeare-upon-Hudson

Most Shakespeare productions in the United States either involve large casts in large spaces, with actors wearing microphones, or small, three-or-four cast productions in black box theaters.

Hagerty envisioned a large cast in an intimate space where the audience could reach out and touch the performers.

He said his mission is to present accessible interpretations of classic works and diverse dramas in unique settings around Jersey City.

Inspired by his theater-going experiences in the U.K., Hagerty wants the company to revitalize Shakespeare and classic drama in terms of performance, education, and audience.

The cast will reflect the diversity of the city, and the productions will showcase some of Jersey City’s beautiful spaces.

To be …

Hagerty had intended to kick off with “Macbeth,” but the actor he wanted for the lead role, Jamie Ballard, got a part playing Harry Potter in London’s West End.

He chose “Hamlet” instead, and will direct the play. “Nothing like starting with a light work by Shakespeare,” he joked.

“Hamlet” is considered one of the most intense psychological dramas of the Shakespearean canon. The main character is consumed by visions of his assassinated father and is driven mad in his quest for vengeance. It’s a full-action drama featuring  ill-fated romance, bloody battles, and dramatic soliloquies.

All the world’s a stage 

In shifting gears, Hagerty called on Irish actor Jonathan Forbes who stars in Amazon’s “Catastrophe,” iTV’s “Fearless,” and the upcoming BBC series, “Dublin Murders.” He has acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal National Theatre, and in the West End.

Hagerty said, “I called up Jonathan and asked if he would like to do the first performance.”

Hagerty filled out the the cast with other fine actors including Eden Brolin (“Beyond,” “Manson’s Lost Girls,” and the upcoming feature film, “Arkansas”); Andrew Sellon (Fox’s “Gotham”); Aria Shaghasemi (CW’s “Legacies”); and Mark Torres (“Amadeus” on Broadway and NBC’s “Manifest”).

The play will debut at Grace Church Van Vorst, 39 Erie Street, March 28 and run through April 14.The performances will be Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at shakespeare-at.org

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com