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April 19, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The audience trickles in, the lights come up, the actors take the stage and perform, the lights come down again, and the audience exits the theater, unaware of the months of planning and work that came together to create a fully realized production, as if it happened by magic. In reality, the director, designers, student assistants and actors must plan and execute every tiny detail of the tragedy of Hamlet, from the gory sword fights and Shakespearean language to, um, the clowns.
Should there be a ladder in the grave for the clowns (Shakespeare’s jester characters, who serve as gravediggers in Hamlet) to climb out? Can you just jump out of a grave? The production team debated this for several minutes at a meeting a month before opening night. “I don’t know; I’m not a grave digger,” quipped director Kevin Brown while the rest of the team continued discussing if these characters should come out of a grave as if it were a clown car, not the final resting place of some poor, departed soul.
Although this talk of jesters might seem trivial, the production meetings must cover every aspect of the show to ensure that nothing is overlooked. The MU Department of Theatre’s production of Hamlet, opening tonight, is set in a decaying society 400 years in the future, rather than medieval Denmark as Shakespeare intended, so details are particularly important to the creation of this fictional world. Brown’s vision for the show is that of a society succumbing to a slow devolution, much like European countries experienced during the Dark Ages when Shakespeare imagined Hamlet, so the set, lighting and costumes reflect this notion that, as Hamlet himself stated, “Time is out of joint.”
Wood, metal and canvas come together to create Hamlet’s multi-level set, which resembles the ruins of a desolate industrial district. Dirty, unpolished metal scaffolding rises high into the upper wings of the stage like giant, half-constructed Ikea shelves that have outlived their functionality. Staircases join at different angles creating an asymmetric design that is jarring, like an M.C. Escher painting come to life.
Set designer Jon Drtina describes Hamlet’s stage as minimal, skeletal and industrial. According to Drtina, the characters in this world have lost the ability to manufacture, and as such, most of their structures are built with materials left over from another generation, like corrugated metal and patchwork canvas.
Between the performances of the show, the Rhynsburger Theatre stage will be needed for other events, which presented Drtina with the challenge of designing a large set that could be completely disassembled and reassembled in about 30 minutes, according to the nimble stagehands’ estimates. To make moving the set easier, Drtina designed it in 10 separate pieces that fit together like a puzzle. The largest platform is a two-level, 8-by-16-foot behemoth, which forms the centerpiece of the set.
Tonally, the set is dark. The wooden elements are gray or black, and the metal scaffolding appears distressed with black and brown paint used to give it a rusty look. Drtina originally planned to use neon paint to create futuristic graffiti that would glow in the black lights, however, they decided the set looked cool enough without it and the bright paint clashed with the purple and rust colors the team had used.
Lighting in this conceptual future is dim and unreliable, but black lights still exist, and they highlight bits of neon on the costumes and faces of the actors. Lighting designer Dean Packard and his wife, costume designer Kerri Packard, surmise that there might be some residual radiation in this imagined future, which shows up as glowing details under black lights.
This show was particularly challenging for Dean Packard due to the number of lights either hung from the rigging, affixed to set pieces or shining from the foot of the stage. “I have more lights on this set than I’ve had on a set in a long time,” he says. “Almost every scene piece has lighting mounted on it somewhere.”
In this version of Hamlet, technology has devolved so much that lighting is not quite working the way it did in the past. “What lighting they do have is remnants of what they could scrounge from before,” Brown says. “It might be attached to a generator out back, and sometimes it might flicker a little bit.” Although the flickering was ultimately left out, the patched-together vibe is still evident.
The crew also chose to use lights and video technology to create the infamous ghost of Hamlet’s father rather than having an actor onstage portraying the ghost. “Initially I did want a hologram,” Brown admits. “But I couldn’t afford that.” He describes the ghost video as “a subliminal, encrypted message from the past” and notes that editing technology will be used to make the image jump around and to add static like an old VHS tape that was played too many times.
Produced by Robert Partyka
Kerri Packard, costume designer for the University of Missouri Theater Department's production of Hamlet, talks about what designing the costumes for the show was like. Packard, who has been at MU for 18 years, is really enjoying the creativity she was given with the show, as well as it's "non-traditional" theme.
Complex space suits don’t exist in this vision of the future. Because textiles can no longer be produced, clothing comes together from bits and pieces of remaining fabric, as well as other materials such as metal and leather. Long coats are layered upon tunics and cargo pants to protect characters from the harsh Danish winter while combat boots and armor give the costumes an edgy feel.
Kerri Packard looked to clothing from the video game Final Fantasy, as well as the dark and moody Chanel Fall 2012 ready-to-wear collection for inspiration in dressing Hamlet and his fellow actors. “It’s very dark and smoky,” she says of the Chanel runway show, “with these weird, body-altering silhouettes. We picked elements from that collection so the costumes became this melding of high fashion and Final Fantasy.”
To differentiate between the royal Danish family and the other characters, Packard used dark jewel tones and earth tones in the costumes’ color schemes. She also designed a one-shouldered armor motif for Hamlet’s family, and she’s considering a painted-on tattoo for Ophelia’s clan.
Because there are no guns or nuclear weapons in this anachronistic future, Packard also had to find sword belts for the actors to wear. Although swords are traditional props in many Shakespearean plays, Brown initially had another idea to bring the show more into the future. “We were also thinking about lightsabers,” he says laughing. “But that got tabled.”
Although the futuristic setting of Hamlet, in which society regresses to another Dark Age, might seem like pure fantasy, Brown sees some disturbing similarities between our current society and the culture that sent Europe from the intellectual era of the Roman Empire into a state of barbarism. “The idea of moving the show to a time in the future is very much analogous to what would have happened in Denmark many hundred years after the fall of Rome,” Brown says. “Hamlet is a human being in a historical time period that’s at the crux of change. I think a lot of people feel that way today. We feel like Hamlet.” The logistics of any theatrical production are important to the creation of a compelling performance, but as Brown notes, it’s the story that’s vital, and Hamlet — lightsabers or not — is one hell of a story.