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Sky's the limit for Shakespeare on Wheels BARD STORMING


In yesterday's editions, an article about the Shakespeare on Wheels production of "Hamlet" incorrectly reported that the next production would be Thursday at Wyman Park Dell, Charles and 29th streets in Baltimore. The performance was held last night. A schedule of future performances is available at 455-2917.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Most of us dress up when we go to the theater, so it's a refreshing change to be able to dress casually and have the theater come to us instead. And under the stars, no less.

Now marking its 10th anniversary with a summerlong tour of "Hamlet" to 29 sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, the University of Maryland Baltimore County's Shakespeare on Wheels "brings Shakespeare to the people," in the words of UMBC theater professor William T. Brown.

The costumed actors don't just inhabit the flatbed trailer-turned-theater, but often stroll the grounds and mingle with the audience when important affairs of state don't require their presence on stage. This means you may find a dark-caped Hamlet brooding next to your picnic blanket, Ophelia slipping into madness next to kids madly tossing a flying disc, and the foppish spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carrying on like a couple of frat boys.

The audiences they infiltrate range from children who may be seeing their first live play to text-in-hand graduate student types. There also are enough Generation X-ers making grunge fashion statements to make this seem like an Elizabethan Woodstock. And audience members of all ages contribute to the merchandising of the Bard by wearing Shakespeare on Wheels T-shirts.

Over the years, the faithful among them have seen everything from a Kabuki "Macbeth" to a rock operatic "The Tempest." By comparison, this year's "Hamlet" is a straightforward telling of the tale. It wants to reach you, whoever you may be.

As the director of this production, UMBC theater professor Sam McCready says: "We have to think in terms of holding an audience in the out-of-doors. We're playing to a general audience of mixed ages, cultural groups and educational backgrounds. The intention was to focus on the family tragedy [in 'Hamlet'], which I feel a contemporary American audience can connect to most."

Mr. McCready works closely with Mr. Brown, who is the executive producer and scene designer of Shakespeare on Wheels. It was Mr. Brown who first organized a similar touring Shakespeare production while teaching in Nigeria in the 1960s.

The two decided to mount this "Hamlet" on a set whose rusted metal-evocative walls and blood-red palace doors visually reinforce what Mr. Brown says is "the play's sense that something's rotten in the state of Denmark."

Mr. McCready quickly adds: "There's a feeling of a fortress as well, almost an Alcatraz."

Something's wet

This somber set for a bloody tragedy is in stark contrast to the grassy hillside at UMBC, where Shakespeare on Wheels recently began its summer run. A large crowd has turned up at this bucolic setting, eager for great speeches, swordplay and slayings.

"I studied Shakespeare in high school, and my daughter is

studying him now, so this continues the tradition," says Pat Adams of West Baltimore, attending the performance with her daughter, Ann.

"The idea of being outdoors makes it different from most of the theater I attend," remarks Harold Reinhardt, a theater buff from Dundalk who likes the staging possibilities that open up outdoors.

"If I get wet, I get wet," he shrugs.

Less than a minute later, he gets wet. Very wet. A heavy downpour sends the crowd dashing for their cars. As fate would have it, the thunderstorm hits just before showtime on opening night, and the show is canceled. Had they tried to go on, it would have been Shakespeare on Water Skis.

So they try again the following night, but something is rainy in the state of Maryland.

A drizzle starts at the very moment the show is to begin. The gods are not on our side, but the show proceeds anyway. Most of the audience remains, huddled under umbrellas and playbills pressed into service as makeshift hats.

The audience-friendly actors introduce themselves on stage and synopsize the family crisis in "Hamlet." They've already been out working the crowd, introducing us before the show to shout "Long live the king!" When we hear the line "The king is dead." Thus does our collective roar suddenly give this "Hamlet" a cast of 600.

But the rain continues to fall on Danish king and Catonsville commoner alike. By the time the actor playing Hamlet gets around to his famous lines "To be or not to be . . . ," his long blond hair is as wet as Daryl Hannah's in "Splash."

Thunder rumbles ominously as he does this monologue. Nifty special effect, that.

The actor playing Hamlet, Jacob Zahniser, later says he couldn't let either the rain or patrons departing early deter him. "I could see people leaving, but couldn't let it bother me."

To continue or not to continue becomes a moot point 90 minutes into the evening when the drizzle becomes a deluge and a announcement utters words of cancellation not found in the Shakespearean script.

The rain is dead

Will we never learn how this plays turns out? Do Hamlet and Ophelia live happily ever after?

Finally, the production did get a full airing last week at Coppin State College, where the brick courtyard setting ringed by academic buildings was, as you'd expect, more urban in texture than the enormous lawn out at suburban UMBC.

Whether the 45-foot-long flatbed trailer that ingeniously holds all the elements for a multi-level set pulls into UMBC or Coppin, however, the production crew tries to situate it so audiences have a sense of being in a theater space.

"We try to create an environment that contributes to the company," says production manager Sheila Lopez, who scouted the sites to which the cast and crew of 26 will trek this summer. Figuratively speaking, "some kind of line is drawn so we say we're in this environment as opposed to an open field."

They'll doubtless accrue their share of diverse venues and adventures in the months ahead. In fact, this year's monsoon at UMBC hardly compares to some past acts of God.

There was the time in downtown Washington when a storm knocked over a tree next to the stage just before showtime for "Twelfth Night" and the performance moved that same evening to an indoor shopping complex nearby.

And there was the time another nasty storm destroyed half the set of "Othello" in Ocean City, with the Moor of Venice and his warriors appropriately moving the action to a gymnasium.

Making merry

Even when the weather has behaved, once in a great while, patrons have not. Ms. Lopez says there was a performance last year of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at which a "disoriented patron" climbed up on the stage in mid-performance. The actors worked around him until he was finally persuaded to make his exit.

On a more agreeable note, there was a performance of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at UMBC last year that unintentionally coincided with the Fourth of July fireworks display, just a shell-burst away in Catonsville. Turning loud distraction to advantage, the enterprising actors in this good-natured comedy improvised lines about yonder blast on the horizon.


What: "Hamlet"

Where: The next Baltimore performance is in Wyman Park Dell, Charles and 29th streets.

When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: Free

Call: For a complete touring schedule of Shakespeare on Wheels, call (410) 455-2917.

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