In this visceral production, audience members are split into two groups that chase two casts around Stimson-Green Mansion, sometimes watching one scene while hearing echoes of the same being played out by different actors in another part of the century-old building.
It’s easy to forget, when you’re settling your butt into a theater seat for its second or 15th or (if your butt belongs to a theater critic) 38th duration through “Hamlet,” that it’s one of Shakespeare’s action movies.
Yes, “Hamlet” is probably the nerdiest of all Shakespeare-nerd plays — about a philosophically minded college student trying to convince himself to kill friends and his paternal uncle who probably killed Hamlet’s father and then married his mother to take over the kingdom — with esoteric, word-game dialogue and suicidal, existential-crisis monologues (“to be or not to be,” “o that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew”).
But this immersive production at Stimson-Green Mansion on First Hill, by young-buck experimental company The Horse in Motion, doesn’t let you forget that while the characters do a lot of intellectual hand-wringing, they also get a lot of exercise. They run around a drafty Danish castle to hide, gossip, look for ghosts, murder each other, drag corpses through hallways, pray, get drunk, fight with their romantic partners, wonder if they’re going crazy, dig graves (“alas, poor Yorick!”) and so on.
On the night I attended, people had to dash across a drizzly brick courtyard, bending their heads against the rain, and up a flight of stairs to catch their breath in a well-appointed, Tudor-furnished room with a roaring (gas) fire if they wanted to hear the first few lines of a scene.
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Your butt may have suffered through a few “Hamlets” in its lifetime, but I’ll bet it’s never seen one as intimate and visceral as this, where some audience members visibly winced when Ophelia waved a fire-poker in front of Hamlet’s uncle’s face, or laughed anxiously when a gravedigger from the “alas, poor Yorick” scene dug in the real-life rain and tossed literature’s most famous skull through a doorway at Hamlet and Horatio.
The Horse in Motion’s conceit for this production is relatively simple to describe but, says company member Nic Morden — who plays the male version of Ophelia in a cast that has several dual-cast parts — complicated to execute.
A total of 40 people get to watch any given show, split into two groups of 20 that chase two casts through and around Stimson-Green Mansion, sometimes watching one scene while hearing echoes of the same being played out by different actors somewhere in another part of the century-old building. (Watching one intense scene while hearing echoes of another life-or-death conversation happening in another room gives the production an especially conspiratorial and castle-y feeling.)
I suspect I got the better of the two tracks. Jocelyn Maher played my group’s Hamlet with a bilious, muttering combination of sneering sarcasm and fury, like the words were blistering her lips as she spoke them. In the famous scene where Hamlet confronts his mother (on my track, Anjelica McMillan) in her bedroom, Maher growled, her chin down but her eyes up, like a wolf circling its next kill. Meanwhile, my group could hear the male Hamlet (Kevin Lin) declaiming the same lines in a more stentorian, actorly way across the hall. I preferred Maher’s growls.
As part of its twists, The Horse in Motion cast Maher as Hamlet in one track and Laertes (who eventually kills Hamlet) in the other. The same with Lin. It’s an admirable feat: Both actors, dressed in the same black costume, have to race around the mansion, playing Hamlet one moment and Hamlet’s killer in the next one. In the final, climactic scene — when Hamlet, Laertes, Hamlet’s father and Hamlet’s mother all wind up killing each other within a minute — Maher and Lin swap Hamlet’s and Laertes’ lines before they stab each other. One Hamlet/Laertes murders its double.
In that moment, “Hamlet” — directed by Julia Sears — rams home one interpretation of Shakespeare’s perhaps most-interpreted play: Hamlet spends a lot of intellectual and psychological energy on how and when to kill others. But he doesn’t realize, until his final breaths, that he’s simply set up an extremely complicated way to kill himself.
Stimson-Green’s rooms and staircases are a splendid setting for the play: the flaming fireplaces; severe ironwork complimented with soft, carved wood; gilded, bas-relief walls; a bare-brick carriage house (which also serves as lobby and bar). While the audience members chase the casts around the mansion, actors hustle through the old, hidden servants’ quarters and staircases, trying to keep up with their cues. (After opening weekend, Morden said, “I think everyone is exhausted.”)
All the actors are on the young side, and some aren’t at the height of their powers. A few, like Maher, fully inhabit their roles; others are physically animated but emotionally perfunctory, like they’re trying to win a college thespian/elocution contest.
A few of the best: Ian Bond plays Hamlet’s murderous uncle as a careful study in conflicted nuance, who can never say what he’s actually thinking — at least not in public. As the new usurper, he has to act stern in the middle of all this family chaos, but he’s appropriately worried that his crazy nephew Hamlet is capable of anything. Bond also effectively nails the lead gravedigger — one of the play’s few moments of total comic relief, especially when the actor is successfully landing jokes while digging in real-life rain — as the sanest guy in the story. He just wants to sip off his flask, banter, get his job done and leave the royals to their dumb, self-destructive anguish.
Mario Orallo-Molinaro, who has a background in sketch comedy and played Hamlet’s friend Rosencrantz as a pitiably doomed goof who gets sucked into the murderous castle machinations but has no idea what the stakes are, has one of those naturally gifted comedy faces that can make an entire audience laugh by raising one eyebrow at just the right second. And he shows his stage versatility with a concluding performance as Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, whose threat to invade Denmark — while all this bloody family drama is playing out — hovers over the entire play.
Fortinbras only appears in the final seconds of “Hamlet,” when he strides into the castle to announce his invasion. To his surprise, he finds a room full of royal enemies, already dead on the floor. Orallo-Molinaro wears a big peacoat (the kind you might imagine on a waterfront gangster) and strolls around the carnage casually, like Tony Soprano. He asks, calm and heavy-lidded: “Where is this sight?” But Orallo-Molinaro’s tone conveys a more contemporary version of the question: What the hell is going on here?
That’s the question “Hamlet” has posed to artists and audiences for around 400 years. We keep chewing on it, from film adaptations to immersive-theater productions.
Clearly, we’re still looking for the answer.
“Hamlet,” by William Shakespeare; through April 29; The Horse in Motion at Stimson-Green Mansion, 1204 Minor Ave., Seattle; $17-$28, 800-838-3006, thehorseinmotion.org (the wait list before every performance opens at 6:30 p.m.)