The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The One About Hamlet

I teach Hamlet pretty much every semester in my Early British Literature class, and eventually, a student will ask me who was my favorite Hamlet. There is, of course, an impressive pantheon to choose from, including Laurence Olivier, Nicol Williamson, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, and Mel Gibson (before he got all weird on us).

But whenever they ask me, “who is your favorite Hamlet?” my reply usually makes them blink and say; “Who?” And then I just smile and say it again.

“Steve Dennis.”

(Long pause). “I don’t know who that is,” they usually say.

Well, I’m not surprised. There are probably only about a thousand people roaming around on the earth who got to see Steve Dennis’ Hamlet, and I’m one of them. And unfortunately, there is no video evidence of his performance (and believe me, I’ve checked). But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back.

Picture it. New Jersey, 1987.

I was taking a dramatics class, which I had somehow not managed to place out of, and one of the requirements was to watch and review a play. Fortunately, the city where I went to college was a big theatre town, so I had plenty to choose from. At the same time, one of my closest friends, Lola, was working crew for the university production of Hamlet. As soon as she found out about my assignment, she fell over herself trying to get me to choose Hamlet as my subject.

“I don’t know, Lo,” I said, kind of unimpressed. “I’m looking to do a real in-depth review, and there’s not many ways you can really do Hamlet that haven’t been done to death already.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she said. She took a reverent pause. “It stars…Steve Dennis.”

“Who’s Steve Dennis?”

I still remember that conversation. It was in a Burger King. Lola couldn’t believe I didn’t know who Steve was. She told me a long complicated story about how he was the absolute best actor in the university’s M.F.A. program (which is, truth be told, extremely exclusive) and how everything he did was simply magical. She wouldn’t shut up about him. I finally caved and said that I would go and see Hamlet if she would only let me eat my chicken tenders in peace.

A week later, I found myself in the theatre waiting to see the Great and Powerful Steve Dennis do Hamlet. The theatre sat about two hundred people, and I was surprised to see that it was filled. At this point, Hamlet had been running for about a week and I didn’t think that it would really appeal to so many people (and many were obviously not students).

Lola sat next to me. The lights dimmed.

As you know if you remember your Hamlet, Hamlet isn’t even onstage when the play begins. He comes in a few pages in and his first line is: “A little more than kin and less than kind.” It isn’t really a killer line, but it gets things going. Anyway, the actor playing Claudius babbled his lines, and then this guy in a black doublet walked on and delivered the line.

Lola clutched my hand and gasped. I just stared at her. Then I looked at Steve.

There was absolutely nothing remarkable about him. He looked to be about 25, had longish blonde hair, and seemed a bit on the short side. He was very thin and had bright blue eyes. If you passed him on the street, you’d never notice him. But man, his voice was incredible. As an actress myself, I was especially “tuned in” to voices, and this guy had, hands down, the most beautiful line delivery I had ever heard.

I really wish that I had the ability to transport you all there. I wish so much that you could have seen it. Because if I say something vague like: “Steve was incredible,” you’re just going to ask: “Oh yeah? How?” And I don’t know if I can answer it. But here are a few facts:

1. For days after the play, I realized that I literally could not remember what the other actors looked like if they were in a scene with Steve. Your eyes just went to him every time he was onstage, even if he wasn’t talking.

2. Lola took my pulse at intermission. It was 120. She had to hold my hand during the fifth act.

3. At the end of the play, even knowing that Hamlet dies, I still bawled like a five year old. Steve’s death scene was so convincing that I wanted to clamor onto the stage and save him. And I wasn’t the only one. The entire theatre was sobbing.

4. Remember how I said he wasn’t particularly good-looking? I apparently lied. By the end of the play, he was gorgeous.

5. When it was time for curtain-calls and I attempted to give Steve a standing ovation, my knees collapsed from under me and all I could do was sit there.

6. I kept muttering: “Why the hell isn’t he on Broadway yet?” throughout the scene changes.

7. For the entire three-and-a-half hours of running time, the whole theatre was silent. I don’t think anybody even went to the bathroom.

8. During Steve’s soliloquies, I wanted to answer him.

9. I think I actually said: “Laurence Olivier is such a hack,” at one point.

10. I vowed, at one point during the gravedigger scene, that I would meet him and tell him I loved him.

When the whole thing was over, Lola and I staggered out of the theatre in a sense of bizarre euphoria. We would have been concerned about our behavior (giggling, gasping, and beginning sentences with “Ohmigod…”), but the whole freakin’ audience was doing the same thing.

I then went home and tried to write my review. I sat there for an hour, trying to put what I had felt and experienced into words. It was next to impossible. I finally finished by saying something like: “This performance was not only the best version of Hamlet I have ever seen, but possibly the best performance of any play, ever.”

When my professor (who was male, keep in mind) handed me back the essay, he had written: “I know exactly what you mean. I’ve seen it.”

Hamlet ran about three weeks (I went to see it two more times!), and after it closed, Lola and I mourned that we would probably never see Steve again. But fortunately, someone important had spotted him, and after his graduation he appeared in a few Off-Broadway shows. I went to see as many as I could, and one night, finally, I got up the courage to hang around outside the theatre and wait for him (Da Dum!).

When I was actually talking to him, it seemed otherworldly. I introduced myself, told him I had once been in the business, and told him I had enjoyed his play. And then, God help me, I started babbling about Hamlet, and he smiled at me beatifically, somehow keeping himself from slowly backing away. I sincerely hope that he didn’t think I was dangerously insane. He seemed genuinely surprised that someone actually remembered his Hamlet.

And then, my real life kicked in. College, grad school, getting married, getting a job—all that nonsense. I never forgot about Steve, though, and often wondered what had happened to him and why he had never become a legendary actor.

One night about four years ago, I was watching Star Trek: Enterprise (shut up), and an episode about the Andorians came on. Andorians are small, blue creatures with antennae. I sat through the opening credits and to my astonishment saw: “Steven Dennis”.

I blinked. Was that possible?

Of course I didn’t recognize Steve when he finally came on…he was blue. But there was no disguising that voice. “Holy crap!” I yelled, and went frantically looking for Lola’s number at the first commercial. “Turn on UPN!” I yelled at her, “right now!”

Pause, then: “Holy crap!” Followed by, of course, giggling.

I really hope he got more than Union scale for that appearance.

So that's my favorite Hamlet. I just hope that Steve doesn't have to be blue in his next role.


  • At 4:34 AM, Blogger Algae said…

    I don't think anyone has ever needed to put the words "UPN" and "Right now" together in a sentence before! I'll have to keep an eye out and see if I ever see this man in anything - he sounds amazing.

  • At 10:42 AM, Blogger Knitting Geek said…

    If you IMDB "Steve Dennis", you will see that he is the only person ever to play four different characters in a single Star Trek season (Voyager, Season 5 [1995])


Post a Comment

<< Home