July 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

Michigan Shakespeare Festival marks 20 years with 'Hamlet'

Lydia Hiller and Shawn Pfautsch star in 'Hamlet' at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. (Brian Scruggs)

For the Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s 20th anniversary season, artistic director Janice L. Blixt pulled out the theatrical big guns.

“I said to the board when I was pitching the season last year, ‘I want to do “Hamlet” because it’s our 20th anniversary, and we should go big or go home,’ ” Blixt says.

The festival starts Thursday and runs through Aug. 17 at Michael Baughman Theatre at Jackson Community College in Jackson.

The artistic director says once the season’s flagship production was agreed upon, the two other shows — Oscar Wilde’s funny “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the only non-Shakespeare production, and Shakespeare’s lesser-known romantic dark comedy “Cymbeline” — “just fell into place.”

“Hamlet” tells the story of how Prince Hamlet must avenge the death of his father, the King of Denmark, and contend with the loss of the throne to his uncle Claudius and his mother’s quickly arranged marriage to Claudius after the king dies.

Blixt, who directs “Hamlet,” admits her “relationship” with the play evolved over time.

“I know ‘Hamlet,’ ” she says. “I’ve worked on productions of ‘Hamlet’ before. And I came into this experience going, ‘It’s a great play.’ But those first months, I was like ‘Boy, did I make a huge mistake. This play made no sense. Why did this guy do these things? This is the greatest play in the English language?’ ”

She describes the process of bringing “Hamlet” to the stage as deep. As director, it took looking at it as a whole, finding the story to be told, and whittling it down from its original five hours to two. She also discovered a natural liking for the character Hamlet.

“I love this struggle that he’s in,” she says. “It’s your action adventure hero and your epic movie.”

Playing Hamlet is ShawnPfautsch, who also is in the season’s production of “Cymbeline” as Cloten. He says Hamlet is not the easiest character to play.

“In some ways he feels like a different character from scene to scene,” says the actor. “And I think one of the enduring things about Shakespeare is that no matter how things change technologically, socially, his characters are always modern.”

As to the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, which have been read, performed and loved for more than 400 years, Blixt believes it is because Shakespeare wrote plays better than anybody else.

“These plays are about love and loss, about being embarrassed, about being toughened up, and about finding that inner strength that lets you go where you didn’t think you could go.”

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Thursday through Aug. 17

Michael Baughman Theatre

Jackson Community College

2111 Emmons, Jackson

Tickets $31-$40

(517) 796-8600

michiganshakespearefestival.com

Andrea Daniel is a freelance writer