By ELLEN FERRY
Wayward Theatre is “dedicated to producing challenging work in equally challenging spaces.” The team certainly had their hands full for their recent production of William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet, performed at the James J. Hill House.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Orchard Theatre Collective’s production of A Doll’s House, which was also performed within the historic St. Paul mansion. I was quite pleased with just how complementary the space was to that particular production. The action in A Doll’s House was confined to a single room on an upper floor, which reflected beautifully Ibsen’s storyline of the housebound Nora and her domineering husband.
Wayward took things a step further and used multiple rooms—on multiple levels—to tell Shakespeare’s tragic tale. On the whole, it worked, but it was not until the second act that the venue really added to the performance.
There were moments of brilliance, no doubt. I felt like clutching the person next to me as the ghost of the dead king floated down the darkened foyer staircase, lit only by the orange glow of lanterns held by terrified men at the bottom. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Rosencrantz (Megan Volkman-Wilson) and Guildenstern (Jordan Johnson) bound up and down the same staircase, and was on the edge of my seat during the dramatic sword fight (choreographed by David Schneider) in the grand hall. But for every high-quality moment, there was also a distracting one. The audience was as well-lit as the actors. Just as I got into the story, I’d catch a glimpse of an audience member across the way digging in their purse or scratching their nose. I longed to let the ornate costumes and luxuriousness of the venue sweep me away to another time, but just as I’d start to admire the exceptional handiwork of costume designer Anna Hill, I’d become aware of the soggy street wear adorned by a nearby audience member. I am not opposed to theatre-in-the-round, and am all for theatre as an experience, but I kept getting yanked from the story.
Not only did I find the other audience members distracting, but I was also acutely aware that I, in all likelihood, was a distraction to them. I felt exposed, and even apologetic about my presence. I think we all did. I again compare my experience to A Doll’s House: I felt exposed during that show, too, but it worked. The discomfort felt right, because the rest of the audience and I were spying in on the breakdown of a marriage. It was perfectly natural to feel sheepish. Sure, Hamlet is full of intrigue, but Shakespeare’s characters shout their emotions to the rooftops. They demand attention, and this cast took a particularly thunderous approach to both the prose and the blocking. It all felt too close.
Wayward can’t help it that audience members scratch their noses on occasion (and let’s be honest, I am an easily distracted person). That said, I cannot forgive them for masking to large portions of the audience several pivotal moments in the play. It’s unrealistic to expect that every single audience member will see every single moment when in a non-traditional space. At a minimum, though, the director better be sure the audience can see all the major, plot-turning moments.
One of the most significant scenes in all of Hamlet is when Hamlet stabs Polonius. It is that unfortunate event that sends the play into a tailspin. For the big moment, I was lucky enough to be seated on the side of the staircase closest to the action; half of the audience sat on the opposite side, with an entirely blocked view (the poor things futilely craned their necks to no avail). Luckily, the prose got them up to speed quickly, but how unfortunate to miss the first big death in the play.
Another important moment involves King Claudius’s reaction to Hamlet’s orchestrated play. Hamlet explains to Horatio that his uncle’s reaction will tell him all he needs to know about the murderous king’s guilt. Unfortunately, the king and queen were perched on a balcony—directly above the heads of much of the audience—for that particular scene. Placing the king and queen up high was a logical choice, and added height to the otherwise level space, but portions of the audience should have been moved accordingly (if only for that scene).
I also took issue with the transitions between scenes—the shuffling from room to room was awkward, and I felt badly for several couples that found themselves at the end of the line, with no choice but to sit separately, because the chairs had filled such that no two beside each other remained. I thought the number of transitions was appropriate (the audience wasn’t going from room to room too much), but moving a mass of people is not a smooth process, no matter how many times it is repeated, and especially without assigned seating. A few times, I noticed audience members at the back of the herd opt to stand (rather than frantically eyeball the room and scurry to remaining seats). Wayward would benefit from having another usher or two to facilitate more efficient seating and help parties stay together.
At the very opening of the play and after intermission, a soloist and lone instrument performed for the audience from the grand staircase. I liked the idea, but the music selections were perplexing. Both songs were pop-like—even hipster. They didn’t fit, not with Shakespeare or with the space.
Now that I’ve picked on all sorts of things that are arguably out of the control of the cast, I want to make it clear that the acting itself was phenomenal. The actors were excessively animated at moments (Shakespeare’s writing is dramatic enough without a lot of arm waving and pacing), but each one delivered a performance worthy of a standing ovation. Tina Fredrickson as Gertrude struck a lovely balance between frail and stoic. Charles Numrich as Polonius and Tim Perfect as Claudius were my favorite, if for the mere fact that they didn’t need to yell to get my attention. Hamlet is certainly a drama, but this performance had more yelling than I would have liked.
Jordan Johnson and Megan Volkman-Wilson as the turtleneck-clad Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were hilarious, though their first entrance really rubbed me the wrong way. The comedic pair first appeared to the audience as two out-of-town guests gawking at their surroundings. They spoke in modern-day dialect leading up to the moment when Claudius entered to welcome them. The contrast between their humorous improvisational lines and the Shakespearean poetry that followed was painfully stark. They certainly established themselves as the show’s comedic duo in those moments, and the audience ate it up, but it was an elementary moment in an otherwise mature production.
I would be remiss if I did not call out the performance of Hannah Steblay. I mentioned earlier that the James J. Hill house complimented Hamlet best in the second act, and this is largely thanks to Steblay’s performance as the deranged Ophelia. I found it odd that director Michael Kelley gave Ophelia’s insanity so much airtime, given that Shakespeare doesn’t even depict her death on-stage. With all that time, though, Steblay really went after it.
The audience descended a narrow staircase to find her soaking in a bathtub, moaning with delusion in the dim light of a tiled basement corridor. I was reminded of a haunted house as I watched the once effervescent Ophelia come unhinged over her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection. I wanted to look away as she paced back and forth in her dripping white gown, crazed with grief.
For all it’s frustrating moments, Wayward Theatre‘s Hamlet at the James J. Hill house is definitely worth seeing. It will make you think critically about the pros and cons of theater in a non-traditional setting, and select moments are positively chilling.
Wayward Theatre has announced an extended run of Hamlet at the James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102. Audiences can catch one of ten remaining performances between now and March 31st. Tickets start at $30.00, and can be purchased online at https://www.waywardtheatre.org/hamlet.