TBT employs Hamlet in Wonderland concept

Thunder Bay Theatre wraps up the first installment of its ambitious Shakespeare Project, with four remaining performances of “Hamlet” left to go this Thursday through Sunday. Once a year for five years running, TBT plans to expose the community to a Shakespeare production, but to also give each a contemporary concept or twist.

TBT’s “Hamlet” remains faithful to the original Shakespeare plot and verse. The aforementioned twist comes with the conceptual choice to have the cast costumed as characters from “Alice in Wonderland” even though they are performing as characters in “Hamlet.” As TBT Artistic Director Jeffrey Mindock explained in the show’s program notes, the unusual concept was intended to allow audiences to view a perhaps familiar Shakespeare tragedy through a new and different lens.

The show features some superb acting, especially in the lead role of Hamlet, the anguished son of the murdered king of Denmark bent on avenging his father’s death. Corey Keller, a seasoned core company member, plays Hamlet with great depth and feeling.

From top to bottom, TBT’s current core company performers give strong performances: Ben Ford as Hamlet’s friend, Horatio; Jordan Ray as Ophelia; Erica Werner as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude; Travis Welch as the usurper King Claudius; CJ Bathiany as Laertes and Adrian Rochelle as the Gravedigger/Ghost.

It’s also satisfying to see Alpena’s own talented Pat Jacques in the role of the older Polonius, who gets to deliver the most famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. David Usher, another local favorite, also makes an appearance as a Gravedigger.

Additionally, many younger local performers get to cut their teeth on Shakespeare, including the appealing Ashley Cotton and Isabel Luther as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ely Irving as Marcellus and Amelia Berles as Bernardo, along with Ryan Heath, Sarah Vrendenburg, Rosalie Mucciante, Katie Kurowski, Connie Fluharty, Cameron Meicher and Iven Brown.

The technical aspects of the show deserve mention as well. Music – foreboding and eerie – highlights compositions by cast member Travis Welch. Jack Golden once again conceived the carefully rendered set, this time with a series of three arched doorways that receive plenty of usage from characters entering and exiting during the two hour-plus production.

The lighting and sound, designed by Colin Marshall, serve as key elements, too. Expect to hear some occasional maniacal laughter and see some cool lighting effects, including the myriad colors of light strands ringing the archways.

Mindock also provided specialized training for the pivotal fencing match expertly carried out between Keller as Hamlet and Bathiany as his aggrieved former friend, Laertes. Sarah Lake-Rayburn’s costumes – though certainly not what you’d expect with young Ophelia dressed as Alice and Hamlet as the Mad Hatter – speak to TBT’s continual commitment to high quality, making all the technical aspects come together once again for the total package.

Still, the cast is dressed as the Queen of Hearts, March Hare, Tweedledee, Tweedledum and company. That concept proves a bit jarring while trying to follow Shakespeare’s dark, layered plot and liberal use of literary devices. With the stilted old English language of Shakespeare challenging to unpracticed ears as is, putting the cast in Alice in Wonderland garb and hoping the audience sees the correlation between the two adds an extra challenge.

As Mindock described it, the jump from Denmark to Wonderland was justified in the similarities between the protagonists’ stories. Much like Alice, he wrote, Hamlet finds himself lost in a world full of characters that seem to understand a truth with which he is unfamiliar. Continually caught between the realization of fantasy and reality, Mindock explained that Hamlet and Alice are both lost until they reach the end.

For Hamlet, who feigns madness in an attempt to figure out and accomplish his purposes, the end results in multiple tragic and dramatic deaths either by poison, by stabbing or by drowning. Shakespeare’s writing, centuries later, still captivates and still stands the test of time even if understanding it requires some work on the part of the viewer.

It is a highly valued thing that TBT is committed to bringing the classic works of Shakespeare to Northeast Michigan audiences.