A new prince takes the ‘Hamlet’ throne

Santino Fontana takes Guthrie role in stride, but its significance keeps glaring at him

by Katie Wilber

Just give me a call whenever you’re free,” Santino Fontana said in a voice mail, “and hopefully we can talk about ‘Hamlet’ and all that kind of stuff.”

Talk about modesty. Fontana, a University alumnus, is one of the youngest actors to professionally portray Shakespeare’s tragic Prince of Denmark. The 23-year-old is preparing for the biggest role of his just-getting-started career.

This is a big deal. Fontana is, one could say, the rookie quarterback of a Super Bowl team. But instead of teammates, he’s working with about two dozen fellow actors. He clutches the immortal words of William Shakespeare instead of a football. And people are hoping, praying, betting on whether he’ll fumble.

Fontana, a 2004 graduate of the University’s Guthrie Theater Bachelor of Fine Arts Actor Training Program, portrays the title character in the production of deception and betrayal. He leads the cast through a difficult and well-known script and must come out with a refined and polished product – a victory, so to speak.

“Of course I’m nervous,” he said. “This is a huge thing, and I know that. It’s frightening.”

The Guthrie held nationwide auditions for the production of “Hamlet,” and Fontana beat out more than 150 men for the title role. The audition process started last year, and Fontana went through four auditions.

“I felt that I did what I wanted to do during the auditions for the most part,” he said. “I didn’t really have any regrets.”

Not a bad sentiment, considering he ended up with the lead role.

Fontana’s road to the University and the Guthrie started when he was a child. He spent a lot of time with his grandparents, and he and his grandfather would watch old movies together.

“We’d watch ‘Bridge over the River Kwai,’ and all the Gene Kelly stuff,” he said. “That’s what instilled a love for theater in me.”

Fontana and his grandfather would often watch a film 10 times, and Fontana assumed performing was the next step.

“That was definitely the biggest influence,” he said.

Fast-forward to Fontana in his late teens and early 20s. He’s worked on or acted in about a half dozen Guthrie productions, so this isn’t his first venture on the Guthrie stage. It’s definitely the biggest role he’s had there, though.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure for any actor playing Hamlet,” said Judy Bartl, program director for the Bachelor of Fine Arts program. “But that’s especially true for Santino since he’s one of the youngest actors to ever play Hamlet in a professional production.”

Despite the nervousness that befalls most actors, the pressure of a lead role in a professional Shakespeare production doesn’t rattle Fontana and the other younger actors, thanks in part to their training and partly because of previous experiences at the Guthrie.

Leah Curney, also a 2004 graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Arts program, plays the doomed Ophelia.

“Of course there’s pressure,” she said. “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any, but the encouragement and support we get balances out the pressure of performing in this setting.”

Fontana and Curney are among the Bachelor of Fine Arts alumni who went through a rigorous four-year program of voice, acting and movement training that combined “the intensity of a conservatory with the other aspects of liberal arts,” Curney said.

Fontana and Curney had each appeared in several shows at the Guthrie before “Hamlet.” And other graduates pop up in the production. As Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Matthew Amendt and Jonas Goslow round out the delegation and bring the University’s contribution of actors to four.

“This program is relatively new since we’ve only graduated two classes,” Bartl said. “It’s really exceptional that these students have gotten these kinds of roles this quickly out of school.”

But back to Fontana. He’s well aware that he’s a young actor in a community of actors with repertoire lists longer than a Shakespearean soliloquy. He almost has to be anxious.

And besides having the lead role, he’s started to notice the posters advertising the Guthrie’s final show at its Vineland Place stage. There are enormous posters of his face plastered on bus stops all around the Twin Cities. He seems more nervous about seeing his face that big than he is about stepping on stage.

“Those,” he said, “are nerve-wracking.”