A House Fit for “Hamlet”
Photo by Kent Kanouse/Flickr
In a way, it might be too late to write about Wayward Theatre Co.’s “Hamlet”—even though it doesn’t even begin until Friday, March 2. Already, eight shows during their month's run have been sold out, and the remaining tickets are dwindling even as Wayward continues to add performances. Still, as there are tickets left, let us just say this now: If you ever wanted to see a Shakespeare classic performed across the rooms of what some would say is the grandest, most opulent house of the Twin Cities, grab your tickets before you even finish reading this.
Wayward Theatre Co. has differentiated itself by putting its plays in the very places that they take place. In 2013, their first production was “Criminal Justice,” and they kept the whole grisly murder in a 17-person capacity hotel room in the now-closed Ramada at Mall of America. Last year saw “The Ghost Train” at the Jackson Street Roundhouse. For this year’s “Hamlet,” March 6-31, Wayward Theatre Co. is setting it in the early 20th century, which had its own tumult of revolutions, wars and social change, and what better place to perform it than St. Paul’s historic James J. Hill House?
“Hamlet” is Wayward’s second partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society to use the James J. Hill House, and because of the success of 2016’s “Tartuffe,” the company was able to use even more of the space in creative ways.
“When you set something in a space that reflects the reality of what the play is trying to find as truth, the hope is that … you can live with that character a little more because there’s not this separation of me, here sitting in the audience, to you, sitting up here on the stage,” says director Michael Kelley.
The play will lead you through rooms like the music room at the front of the house, the staircase room and the basement, which is a part of the house that not everyone sees. The art room is used for some of the largest scenes of the play, its 22-feet high ceilings providing a magnificent atmosphere for the court, and its mezzanine balconies in full use for the cast. And, although Kelley had originally envisioned that part of the play could take place outside, with Minnesota’s fickle winters, the company decided to play it safe. Ah, well. More time spent underneath carved oak and mahogany. What a shame.
Because of the logistics of moving people out and about the historic 36,500-square foot house, Kelley and Wayward Theatre have had to be meticulous about blocking, scene changes and choreography. The hallmark sword fights of the play have to be planned down to the inch as they will be two feet away from the audience members. When Kelley says the audience is part of the play he means it: There are no separated risers for the audience. They will either sit around the room in a full circle against the walls or tennis-court style along a drawn sideline.
Especially when the play is truly in the round, Kelley hopes that if you change where you sit from scene to scene, you’ll be able to glean a whole new perspective from the play because you’ll see different sides of the actors’ emotions, of their body languages. “Hamlet” is a play that looks into the murky abyss of the future where, as Kelley likes to say, black and white morality turns gray in the eye of the beholder, which is exactly one of the reasons he chose it.
“I feel as a youngish man, that (losing my father) was a defining moment for me, and still having, I hope, many, many years in front of me, navigating the rest of my life without my father is something I have to figure out. Hamlet has to do the same thing,” says Kelley. “Loving my own father has allowed me to see that no one is always good and no one is always bad. It’s the choices we make that determine the person we're going to be. … Hamlet is labeled one of the most inactive characters in Shakespeare because ‘if he only would just do something about it.’ The problem is he has a conscience and he’s afraid of what's to come and all of those huge life questions, and I don't know, personally, I identify a lot with it. I think it's questions most people ask themselves at some point.”
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