Michael Kahn, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director, has lured Michael Urie to play the titular Prince for its upcoming production of Hamlet, opening next week and has peppered the show with a strong collection of actors, including Alan Cox as Claudius, Madeleine Potter as Gertrude and Robert Joy as Polonius.
Joy is no stranger to Shakespeare, having done more than a dozen productions through his 40-plus years in showbiz. His most recent was playing Peter Quince in last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“When I was young in high school, Shakespeare study was school work and I saw some of the genius of it, but pretty much, I felt like it was sitting there and you had to mine it for the answers to the questions your teacher was asking,” he says. “I saw a production of Hamlet as a student that got me charged up and then I was in a student production of Henry IV Part 1, and being part of bringing that to life forever changed my attitude of Shakespeare. These plays were not so much meant to be read but to be performed and experienced viscerally.”
“I’ve had a relationship with Hamlet from seeing many, many productions over the years,” he added.
When preparing to play Polonius, he met with Kahn months before rehearsal began to ensure he was on the same page as his director in regards to how he would play the role.
“I wanted to explore Polonius’ power—both political and domestic—and they are related because it has to do with his attempt to control the flow of information and make sure the king knows what’s happening both internationally with Norway and domestically,” Joy says. “The king is a little insecure having just taken over and keeping a secret about the previous king, Polonius’ role is really important and Claudius says so much in their first scene.”
Joy’s take on the role will be Polonius as the spymaster of the play, rather than the bumbling old man usually portrayed.
“We both agreed it would be fascinating to examine the power and control he exercises. I think it’s a fascinating way to go,” Joy says. “Most people in the Shakespeare Theatre Company audience will have seen a lot of the other kind of Polonius and it’s time for them to maybe see what else is in there. It’s certainly exciting for me to explore that.”
January 16 – March 4, 2018
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This is the first time that Joy and Kahn have worked together although Joy performed there in 2017 when the Shakespeare Theatre Company, ACT and Seattle Rep co-produced King Charles III with Joy playing Charles.
“He saw the show and we met, so we have a very young friendship,” Joy says.
Joy hadn’t met Urie until the first day of rehearsal, although he has long admired him, having seen Buyer & Cellar, Torch Song and The Government Inspector all in the last several years.
“I was blown away by his charm, talent and intelligence,” he says. “The idea that he was playing Hamlet really got me excited.”
A small group of cast members began rehearsing in New York at the beginning of December and Joy has relaxed into his character over the last month.
“Because I have seen so many of the jolly kind of Polonius and the comedic kind, it takes a while to shed some of the preconceptions,” he says. “We don’t have to go into the bits and jokes that others have done over the years, so we went back into the writing and found something fresh.”
Growing up in Canada, Joy wasn’t always destined for acting. He was following a path that had him going in an academic direction—possibly a teacher at University—when he realized that he was mostly working from the head up and wanted to use more physicality.
“I felt the acting I was doing was more holistic for me and I was yearning for something that would be an intellectual challenge, a physical challenge and emotionally rich,” he says. “Acting just seemed to fit that bill and I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
He started in a comedy group in Canada, got some regional theater jobs and made his Broadway debut in Hay Fever in 1985. Other appearances on Broadway have included The Nerd, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Side Show (which premiered at The Kennedy Center in 2014).
Joy landed numerous film roles, such as Desperately Seeking Susan, Land of the Dead and Fallen; while TV lovers know him best for his eight seasons as Sid Hammerback the medical examiner on CSI:NY, though his resume includes guesting on a host of top shows, including The Blacklist, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, Masters of Sex, and Everybody Loves Raymond.
“I was away for theater for a while because of CSI:NY, and I was so happy to get back to the stage when that series was over. It was an amazing gift to me, and a thrill,” he says. “But I am still trying to keep my fingers in all possible pies, just like Shakespeare did. I’m interested in keeping all the mediums going, being TV, film or the stage.”