Through March 4
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street, NW
At 37, Michael Urie has the acting career that he couldn’t imagine as a kid in Plano, Texas.
“I thought maybe I’d be a drama teacher one day but couldn’t see much beyond that. And then I moved to New York City where I felt both instantly at home and inspired by the possibility that I could be a real, working actor.”
Today, Urie’s vast and varied vitae includes classical theater, Broadway musicals, 600 performances of “Buyer and Cellar” (his one-man comedy about a young manager of a mock mall on Barbra Streisand’s Malibu estate) and a successful run on TV’s “Ugly Betty.”
Last week, the approachable actor sat down at an out-of-the-way coffeeshop in Chinatown for tea and some talk about tackling a theatrical milestone. It was like meeting with a fun acquaintance who just happens to know a lot about Shakespeare.
When Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn was asked to do one more play from the bard’s canon before ending his tenure as artistic director, he agreed to stage his third “Hamlet” provided Urie play the title role. As Hamlet, Urie, who studied drama with Kahn at Juilliard School in New York, brings a mix of dramatic and comic talents to the story of the Danish prince whose life is rocked after his uncle murders his father the king, marries his mother and steals the crown. Set in a contemporary, sleek police state, the production certainly resonates.
WASHINGTON BLADE: When Michael Kahn offered you Hamlet, how’d you react?
MICHAEL URIE: I accepted without hesitation of course. It’s a part I’ve wanted to play forever. In the past I’d get studio space and work on it from time to time with another director. We’d bring in other actors and do the ghost scene or the Gertrude scene just for ourselves.
BLADE: Is that a thing actors do?
URIE: Nerds like me, yeah. Coming in, I knew the text. I had played Hamlet’s friend Horatio at South Coast Repertory in California. And I did Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in Michael Kahn’s class at Juilliard. Jessica Chastain (then-fellow acting student and now movie star) was my Ophelia.
BLADE: Are you into the politics of the play?
URIE: How could you not be? The politics of Shakespeare are as universal and timeless as the way he discusses sanity, love and all the other timeless things you find in his works. The whisper campaign sensibility of our production feels very at home here in Washington. … Referring to the death of his father and his uncle’s shady ascension to the throne, Hamlet says, “But two months dead — nay, not so much, not two. So excellent a king, that was to this Hyperion to a satyr.” Similarly, in real life, we’ve gone from the best possible example of what an American can be to the worst of all likelihoods. I have a great sense of pride that there’s a production of “Hamlet” happening in the nation’s capital the week that the Obamas’ portraits are unveiled and the week that the FBI says the White House is lying. And here I am doing a play about spying and lying.
BLADE: How are D.C. audiences?
URIE: When New York audiences embrace you, it’s very exciting. There’s nothing like it. On the other hand, many of them are career theatergoers, and along with their love of theater is a need to qualify what they’re seeing. They’re inherently all critics. Washington audiences are smart. And with the exception of the critics, I find that audiences are coming to enjoy themselves. They’re not seeing shows four times a week like some New York theatergoers. They’re going once or twice a month. They’re coming to find what they like and not what they don’t like about a show. When I was at the Shakespeare Theatre doing “Buyer & Cellar” a few years ago, my costumer told me a story about three fratty young slightly drunk young guys on the Metro looking at my poster. One of them said, “Look at this! Look at this! See this guy.” And my costumer leaned in to hear what he’d say. “This guy plays a bunch of parts all by himself and he’s awesome. We gotta go.” Their counterparts in New York wouldn’t have even noticed the poster.
BLADE: “Hamlet’s” cast includes your partner of nine years Ryan Spahn, who also studied under Kahn. As Hamlet’s former school pal Rosencrantz, Ryan moves admirably from comic to sinister.
URIE: He is good, isn’t he? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are such complicated characters. Lots of people feel like Hamlet isn’t justified in the sending his old schoolmates to their deaths. In this production they’re all in with the king and they stand by and watch Hamlet beaten by the guards.
BLADE: A former sitcom star once told me that nothing compares to TV fame. It’s explosive. People who never see a movie or go to the theater watch TV. Was that your experience, and would you do TV again?
URIE: Yes and yes. After “Ugly Betty” was cancelled I did 13 episodes of “Partners,” a CBS sitcom about gay friends from the guys who made “Will & Grace.” Out of the gate we were a hit. After just three months we won a Golden Globe. That never happens. Yet after our ratings dipped, the show was cancelled. We had more stories to tell and our numbers weren’t bad.
BLADE: Was that difficult?
URIE: Yes, but not as hard as when “Ugly Betty” ended. We were a family for four years. Actors rarely have jobs that last that long.
BLADE: Hamlet changes a lot over the play. You make those changes feel real.
URIE: Thanks. It’s true that he can go from horribly depressed to giddy. He’s wildly emotional, wickedly smart and follows his impulses. Hamlet is probably bipolar. He’s always smart but by the end of the play, he has evolved. He has come to terms with mortality and his place in the world. He finds humility and grace.
BLADE: And do you relate to that?
URIE: In the last two years I’ve noticed a change in myself. Not too long ago I was at a rehearsal where I was the oldest person in the room. People looked at me to set the tone. It was different but I liked it. You don’t feel like you have to prove something or try to be liked. My three most recent works — “General Inspector,” Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song” and now “Hamlet” — have all been very formative. “General Inspector” was a silly comedy with a big cast. I was the lead but it was collaborative in the sense that I’ll help you get your laughs if you help me get mine. “Torch Song” is a great American story, a beautiful revival that means so much to people. “Hamlet” is a combination of both of those things. I really think everything leading up till today has informed what I’m doing now.
BLADE: Hamlet can seem so ineffective at times, but that’s not you.
URIE: I certainly have never been one to let grass grow under my feet. But that’s the nature of being an actor. You have to keep moving and looking for work all the time.
BLADE: Would you play Hamlet again?
URIE: I never say never. But for a Juilliard-trained actor who embraced the training and sought a career in theater, this production has been the way to do it. I’m so intensely satisfied with our cast and the way Michael Kahn has led me through the role. And the audience’s response has been amazing.