Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bold Plantagenet Director To Present Hamlet as a Renaissance Prince

 Kalamazoo Community Playhouse director Jerry Eaton is all about pushing the envelope. This man of the theater -- whom DNA evidence has shown to be a twenty-sixth cousin to Richard Plantagenet, or King Richard III  -- was the driving force behind his company’s 2010 post-nuclear, dystopian Annie, 2012’s all-female La Cage Aux Folles, and the controversial 2013 Arcadia Elementary School production of Full Metal Jacket. This time, however, he’s got Shakespeare companies from Chicago to New York sitting up and taking notice. 

He's chosen to set Hamlet in late-sixteenth-century Denmark, and to cast a 30-year-old man in the title role.

“It took a while to convince the cast,” Eaton confesses. “When I sprang it on them at the first read-through, they were incredulous. Several stormed out. Our key actress had of course assumed she
herself would play Hamlet opposite a male Ophelia, engaging in the conventional theatrical challenge to normative gender roles. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were shocked when I told them they’d be dressed as Renaissance courtiers in velvet trunks and hose, rather than in Blues Brothers pin-stripes, shades, and fedoras.”

But it was hardest to convince Hamlet, played by local actor Max Steenstra (also a remote relative of Richard III, by his own account).

“It took me a long time, and several read-throughs of the play and blow-out arguments with Jerry, before I could even begin to visualize Hamlet’s mise-en-scene as a sixteenth-century castle," says Steenstra. "I mean, what the hell! Where’s the corporate boardroom? Where’s the Martian backdrop to the ‘To be or not to be’ speech? And Claudius as a Renaissance monarch rather than a ruthless CEO, or an intergalactic warlord, seemed just crazy. But I gave it a chance, and you know, somehow, it works.”

But how does it work? Well, both Eaton and Steenstra point to several passages in the script that they claim justify their radical departure from traditional staging practices. “There’s this part where Hamlet talks about city acting companies that are composed entirely of boy actors,” says Eaton. “Naturally I’ve always interpreted these lines as a reference to high-school lacrosse teams that travel around for their matches, and staged things accordingly. But I’ve lately done some intensive Wikipedia research, and it turns out that in Shakespeare’s time there actually were theater companies composed of boy actors. Acting plays.” Eaton leans forward excitedly. “It wasn’t a metaphor.

Actress Megan Malarkey has likewise made some startling discoveries as she’s embraced the role of Renaissance Ophelia. “I couldn’t believe it when they showed me the sketches for my costume – a floor-length velvet gown rather than skinny jeans and a T-shirt? Come on. This is a teenage girl! But after a while, it made sense. I read the play. What I saw was, this is a girl whose dad wants her to keep it covered up. And she’s not all that rebellious, not very experienced. That’s why I agreed not to hand a package of ‘emergency condoms’ to my brother Laertes as he leaves for Paris, like the guys always do in high-school and college productions. I mean, the guys playing Ophelia.” She adds, “Audiences are pretty unfamiliar with Shakespeare, and don’t seem to notice the omission.” 

When asked where he found the courage to launch his unconventional Hamlet, Eaton cites the controversial but thrilling work of Morristown, New Jersey, community-theater director Kevin Hiles (whose website also discloses its author's surprising genetic link to Richard Plantagenet). In 2007 Hiles startled mid-Atlantic audiences with his decision to set Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in sixteenth-century Venice (full story at,2214). "Hiles just up and did it,” Eaton says, shaking his head in admiration. “Renaissance Italy! It's mind-blowing. Of course, the first-night audience walked in expecting to see Shylock in Las Vegas, or on an eighteenth-century slave plantation, or running a Manhattan stock brokerage. Naturally, the critics hated it. But the public? They got it.”

But that was in Morristown, New Jersey. Urbane. Sophisticated. Avant-garde. Could what worked there work in Michigan?

“I’ve been asked that countless times,” says Eaton. “Here’s what I say. I’ve done a lot of traveling. I’ve been to Gaithersburg, Maryland; Northam, Massachusetts; Toledo, Ohio; even London, Ontario. Up in Canada. And it turns out that, like the Plantagenet he certainly was, Carl Sandburg was right. It’s all basically like Kalamazoo. Colonial Williamsburg is the only place that isn’t. So I figured, hell, yeah. If New Jersey can do it, Kalamazoo can do it.”

Not that it’s been easy. Bucking decades of theatrical tradition has presented Eaton with challenges a-plenty. Polonius has had a tough time unlearning his fake "Mafia consigliori" accent, while, with opening night only a week away, Ophelia is still lapsing into traditional Valley Girl locutions during her mad scenes. The most difficult scene to re-interpret has been the last one, which features the long-awaited combat between Hamlet and Laertes. Recalling some tough rehearsals, Max Steenstra grimaces. “At first I was like, where’s my light saber? Where’s my light saber? It just seemed so strange to see this actual fencing foil coming at me, and having to, you know, fend it off with my left hand up in the air.” When it was pointed out that Hamlet doesn’t actually succeed in fending off Laertes’s foil-thrust, Steenstra’s face lit up. “That’s what makes it make sense! It’s actually kind of hard to fence!”

Tickets are nearly sold out for Eaton’s innovative production, which opens April 7th. But predictably, as with Hiles’s ground-breaking Merchant, purists are shaking their heads. “I just don’t think the contemporary theater world is ready for a male Hamlet,” says a local theater critic. “Even one wearing tights.”

No comments:

Post a Comment