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Not Your "Shakespeare on the Pier": A Barebones Hamlet Cuts to the Core

(re)discover theatreThey call it a "passion project." And if pain proves passion, they're pros. Though abandoned by their original producer, the young thespians of (re)discover theatre have begged and borrowed a lot--rugs, shovels, cars, chairs, tables, and more. Each now does the work of three, contributing their salaries from day jobs and rehearsing in a vast, unheated (but free!) rehearsal space, which they transformed into a commune with space heaters, coffee pots, and toilet paper.

It gives a whole new meaning to that irreducible definition of theater—"two boards and a passion."

Why? It's a new year—why not a new "Hamlet"? But one that the (re)discoverers MUST believe has never been done before—but will--for eight performances at the old Live Bait Space in mid-February. Veteran actors would be cowed by their goal to find freshness in something so ferociously familiar. But when producer Miriam Reuter, co-producer Jon Matteson (who also plays the Danish prince) and text coach Jess Shoemaker met over six months ago, they were after a dream too big to discourage. Reuter: "We asked ourselves: If we had the freedom and the resources to work on anything as artists, what would we create? We'll make 'Hamlet' happen. Instead of waiting for someone to open the door, we'll do it ourselves."

You don't get much more Chicago theater than that. Windy City actors live to open doors. Reuter's words stand in for many heartland dreamers: "There's an undeniable magic to naive, youthful, enthusiastic energy. (re)discover theater is not so much about creating something brand new, as building our place in this centuries-old-tradition."

Not surprisingly when you're reinventing the wheel on a small to invisible budget, their "Hamlet" will be minimalist—but from conviction as much as necessity. Back to basics is Matteson's approach to the killer title role: "We've heard the speeches so many times, we've become numb to their power and genius, but what about watching someone--me--discover those arguments totally fresh?"

For Matteson it's love, not Hamlet's usual fury foundering on indecision, that's the key to this reluctant revenger: "I'm different from every one of the thousands of people who have played Hamlet. What strikes me most in this play is how much Hamlet really loves his mother, Ophelia, and his friends. They're different kinds of love, on different levels, but as he's lied to and betrayed again and again, it leaves him with no one to trust but Horatio. All that love never goes away, but it's mixed with an understanding of how the people he loves work. Love is the strongest action that I can work in. So that's where I've started Hamlet's journey."

Being true to the text means taking liberties with a very generous script, says text coach Shoemaker: "From the start we wanted a two-hour Hamlet, which means cutting over half the text. I spent a lot of time trying to pare down to the essentials, asking myself 'What story are we trying to tell'" When you get down to the nuts and bolts of Shakespeare, I feel the plot becomes secondary, taking a backseat to the extraordinarily well-crafted human journey. I respect the text and I'm careful to maintain the integrity of the verse and themes. But I wasn't shy about things like giving away one of Hamlet's speeches, re-arranging soliloquies, intercutting segments, or re-assigning gender. And I got rid of the pirates. I've always hated the pirates." (Is nothing sacred?)

Then there's the challenge of how close to bring the play to the present. Stage manager Bobby Arnold found the right formula: "We use the idea that 'airplanes exist, but cell phones do not.' [A terrific idea on so many levels...] It lets us realistically develop the storyline accurately, while also letting us explore the elements of staging, costuming, sound, and lights." Minimally, of course.

And, yes, sometimes with the Bard less really is more and, yes, ignorance can be a kind of bliss. That's the strategy practiced by director Matt Wills, who counts on the hope that a lack of experience can bring a lack of bias: "I'm coming into this production without an extensive knowledge or preconceived notions about 'Hamlet.' Because I haven't read every text of Hamlet, or manically studied the Arden--that's what our text coach is for--it's safe to say that I'm able to see the text in a new way. Undoubtedly there are things that can't be argued: Hamlet sees his father's ghost, setting off a chain of events that ultimately ends in the death of several characters. How we get to that end is up for interpretation. Is Polonius a loving father? Do Hamlet and Ophelia have a good sexual relationship? Answering these questions is our way of mining the gold from Shakespeare's text."

Rebooting a classic implies that something got lost across the centuries. Or perhaps it happened as recently as childhood. Wills: "Our audiences are hungry for a production of Hamlet that's non-traditional. People hear 'Shakespeare' and are immediately transported to their freshman year in high school, where the teacher made each read 'Julius Caesar' out loud, which was boring as shit, and resulted in kids hating Shakespeare. I was one of those kids."

Happily, Wills' evil indifference didn't last: "Since then I've discovered that Shakespeare writes some of the most surreal and humanistic text in dramatic literature. I feel people are hungry to see a funny, tragic, messy, but still well crafted and textually sound "Hamlet". We take from the old--the script, scansion work, etc.--and combine it with the new--our actors, split staging, and re-arrangement of the text). This is how we (re)discover Hamlet."

The rest is silence.

"Hamlet" runs at the Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark Street, February 16-25. Tickets are $12 at the door or $10 if reserved in advance; for advance reservations or more information, email Facebook: (re)discover theatre; Twitter: @rediscovtheatre. Because brevity is the soul of wit, running time will be two hours and fifteen minutes.

Lawrence Bommer
Contributing Writer

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