Every year, the REV Theatre Company fills Laurel Hill Cemetery — Philadelphia’s resting place of the rich, the powerful, and the famous — with an almost cult-like following of theatergoers, who see haunting and memorable versions of melodramatic musical performances. Their new production of Hamlet continues their foray into uncharted territories — a hallmark of the innovative REV approaches to Shakespeare. This time, co-Artistic Directors Rosey Hay and Rudy Caporaso have transformed part of the cemetery into a surreal and hallucinatory place with a chandelier hanging in a tree and an old tombstone turned into a royal bed.
Henrik: What inspired you to present one of the world’s most iconic plays among real graves at night?
Rosey: Hamlet is one of the world’s most profound meditations on death — and life, too of course — but the reality of death is present in every moment of the play.
As with the Graveyard Cabaret series, the obelisks, gravestones, and monuments are another character in the production. They remind actors and audiences that the boundary between life and death is very porous, and that it can be traversed — Hamlet and the ghost of his father meet again in that netherworld between life and death. The setting will make the experience of death and loss of the characters so much more real and immediate.
We’ve partnered with Laurel Hill Cemetery since 2011 when we presented Frank McGuinness’ Carthaginians, which is set in a graveyard in Northern Ireland. And after five years of our Graveyard Cabaret, we wanted to push our boundaries and venture into new territory.
Rudy: I’ve done the role [of Hamlet] three times before, always indoors. So the many challenges that come with Mother Nature will be exciting to meet. But just as importantly and very personally, since the last time I approached the role, I have experienced significant loss in my life.
I’m sorry to hear it. In your press release, you talked about your “immersive” approach. Could you elaborate on how you plan to bring the audience into Hamlet’s “fever dream”?
Rosey: Hamlet is staged so that audiences are very, very close to the action, sometimes a part of it — as in the court scenes at the beginning and end of the play. These are very public scenes, and so we have worked to make a real connection with our audiences. I see this immersion as a way for audiences to be witnesses to the events that play out a few feet from them.
Rudy: Hamlet has a few soliloquies and I am very much in the midst of our audiences, directly connecting them to Hamlet’s inner life and bringing them into the deepest workings of his mind and psyche.
Could you describe how the two of you work together in developing these concepts?
Rosey: We talk and discuss and come up with ideas and discard a lot until we distill the essence of our shared thinking. With Hamlet, we wanted to focus on the immediacy of life and death. We are attracted to works that can be presented in non-theatrical spaces. Laurel Hill was in the forefront of our thinking from a very early stage.
Both of you work come with rich, but totally different, backgrounds. What are some of the things that you brought to this production?
Rosey: I focus on bringing the emotional landscape of the play to life, and I put a huge amount of work into the performing of Shakespeare’s text.
Rudy: I focus on creating the world of the play through visual means — costumes and set pieces, as of course, the cemetery is our setting. Our shared goal is to make REV’s productions as theatrical and compelling as possible.
Every production of yours that I have seen made the audience shriek with delight. Hamlet demands more. What are you doing that integrates Hamlet into the ghoulish atmosphere of the cemetery without degenerating into a Victorian melodrama?
Rudy: I actually don’t think of the cemetery as ghoulish. To me, it is a place of beautiful mystery and the perfect place to contemplate life and death — and the not-so-great divide between the two.
Rosey: This Hamlet demands an intensity of emotional experience and expression that is authentic and believable, but the production is funny as well as deeply moving. We have not shied away from mining the text for every bit of wit and humor. There must be light to counteract the darkness of Hamlet’s journey.
Tell us about the actors and what they bring to this special Hamlet at the Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Rosey: Rudy Caporaso is playing the title role. He brings enormous passion and emotional depth, along with absolute fearlessness and courage. Hillary Spector, a New York based actor, plays Gertrud. She comes with much experience in classical theatre and has worked at CSC [Classic Stage Company], BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music], and the Public Theater. Our Claudius is Brian McManus, a much younger, hungry-for-power brother who murders to achieve his ambition (with shades of Macbeth here).
Rudy: There is a small group of actors who have become part of REV’s productions whom we know and love to work with: Brandon Shockey (Rosencrantz), Abby Garber (Ophelia), and Tyler Houchins (Horatio) are all graduates of the University of the Arts. Mark Knight has also been with us for our two previous summer Shakespeare productions.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Rosey: It’s a powerful and streamlined Hamlet. We have explored the play as an intimate family tragedy among people who love deeply, and yet have betrayed and will destroy one another.
Rudy: This is an iconic (maybe even uber-iconic?) Shakespeare play, but I think this version in this [cemetery] will be a unique theatrical experience.
Thank you both. I wonder how Shakespeare would react to your production at a real cemetery. Would he say, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” or “This above all: to thine own self be true”? Perhaps, when the audience joins the company of the deceased at Laurel Hill, we will all be closer to finding out.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Hamlet is presented by REV Theatre Company and will be performed on July 7, 8, 14, and 15 at the Laurel Hill Cemetery – 3822 Ridge Avenue, in Philadelphia, PA, and on July 19-23 and 25-29, 2017 at the Physick Estate – 1048 Washington Street, in Cape May, NJ. For tickets to the Laurel Hill performances, call (215) 228-8200, or purchase them online. For tickets to the Physick Estate performances, call (609) 884-5404, or purchase them online.