Sunday, February 7, 2010

Elsinore, Wisconsin

             In 2003 the Lakeside Players in Kenosha, Wisconsin staged William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Before the run was complete a marriage was over, someone checked into a mental hospital and one of the most interesting directorial decisions I’ve heard of regarding this play dissolved largely unseen into the over-tread floorboards of the Rhode Opera House in historic downtown Kenosha. A stone’s heave from the birthplace of Orson Welles.

            The husband-wife directing team had unrealistic expectations to say the least. They believed there would be such a clamor to see the show that people would be lining up around the block for tickets. If you know anything about Kenosha (and you can probably make some accurate assumptions if you stretch your imaginary muscle) you know that Kenoshans never really line up for anything unless it was to file for unemployment after the Chrysler lakefront assembly plant closed down in ‘89. Lee Iacocca had promised to keep the plant running for at least five years after Chrysler bought American Motors, but after only a year it was announced that 5,500 autoworkers would lose their jobs. Shipping died soon thereafter, the dock's primary use became fishing, and Kenosha grabbed hold of its bootstraps.

            The Rhode Opera House stood in the shadow of that lakefront plant for decades. The plant was an eyesore, a giant brick and rust structure blocking any decent view of Lake Michigan. As if someone had planted an old Death Star on the Harbor. But it was our Death Star. And now it’s been replaced by modestly occupied, high-end condos.

            One would think the condos would bode well for the Lakeside Players and downtown consumer culture. But losing jobs means losing money. No money means no leisure time. And no leisure time means no idle quests for poetic enrichment. Thus the thought that staging a 400 year-old play in Kenosha’s wayward economy was going to be profitable was strange indeed. Borderline maniacal if you want to be dramatic about it. And that accounts for the mental hospital aspect of this story.

            Hamlet might have played well in Kenosha if they had run it like Little League and cast different teams of children in the individual acts, and given eager parents the opportunity to direct or run the spotlight and purchase photos of their performing offspring at inflated prices. Every child's costume could boast advertisements from local businesses: Ruffalo’s Pizza, Mars Cheese Castle, Captain Mike’s Bar.

Or if they could have gotten Brett Favre to play the perplexed Dane. A moratorium would have been placed on cheeseheads being worn during performances so as not to impede anyone’s view. Favre has proven himself all too in tune with Hamlet’s indecisive nature. And when they choose to act at the climax, both Hamlet and Favre find themselves throwing tragic interceptions and disappointing those who love them most.

But onto that bit about dissolved genius.

In the first act Hamlet is visited by the Ghost of his father, who has come from hell to tell his son that he was murdered by his brother and that Hamlet must seek revenge for this foul and unnatural act. The Ghost calls Hamlet to action and it’s his design that brings the house of Elsinore crashing down. He is the architect of all the proceeding violence:

Thus was I sleeping by a brother’s hand

Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,

No reckoning made but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.

O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!

If thou hast nature in thee bear it not,

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be

A couch for luxury and damned incest. (1:5)

On the Lakeside stage in 2003, the Ghost’s call for revenge was more than a call. He had a physical hand in every murder in the play. His hand is upon Hamlet’s when Hamlet stabs Polonius in the closet. Ophelia’s suicide was played as a murder, with the Ghost coming onstage and strangling her. It’s that image in particular: Ophelia, the innocent, the girl corrupted and controlled by the men around her, struggling against the gray grip of the Ghost’s hands around her neck… that was genius.

 Hamlet has probably been staged hundreds of thousands of times, so it’s possible that someone else stumbled upon this idea before our Kenosha comrades. It’s certainly symptomatic of some pretty serious daddy issues. But it was a perfect moment. And my head is forever hatless to the directing team's effort.

As a blue-collar kingdom, Kenosha thrived for almost a century. Ramblers started coming off the line in 1902. Later this year they’re going to close down the only remaining Chrysler Engine Plant in town, the last vestige of our automotive heritage. 800 more workers will lose their jobs. The state legislature has just voted to pay for the cleaning of the polluted land under the plant after it’s demolished. 100 acres for “future economic development.” But what are a people who don’t manufacture anything? 

There’s resilience in the hearts of Wisconsinites. We’ll build coffee shops and restaurants and open bookstores if that’s what they tell us we should do. We’ll take capitalistic risks, and enjoy the American dreams of being your own boss, and working 80 hours a week without health insurance or pension. We'll stage over-ambitious theater with furious sound. We’ll pull and yank on our bootstraps until our callused hands tear and our children have all gone to California in search of riper industry. 

But there are icy fingers around our throats, the ghosts of villains long-vanished from our daily activity.  How long will Lee Iacocca's broken promise haunt us? Sundering families and calling us to desperate investment? Not until all of our bodies are piled up in Kenosha Harbor and Fortinbras waltzes in to take over the kingdom. 

Whoever the hell Fortinbras is in this ridiculous analogy.

I don't like to make light of divorce because it's a subject that colored the cynicism of my twenties, so as for the directing team's marriage that ended with this production of Hamlet... I don't really know what happened between them. I'm sure there have been other couples whose vows fell victim to the bard. I guess sometimes two people come together for a while, they create something beautiful like a play or a family, and that kind of perfection just can't be permitted to endure.

Here's my sister Cassie in 2001 looking at the back of the Rhode Opera House
in Kenosha, home of the Lakeside Players. That empty field there used to be 
filled with part of the American Motors Assembly Plant. It is still a vacant field today.


  1. "I'm sure there have been other couples whose vows fell victim to the bard. I guess sometimes two people come together for a while, they create something beautiful like a play or a family, and that kind of perfection just can't be permitted to endure." Nice. This post is thebombdotcom!

  2. them's fightin' words enemigo!
    ...or wait...
    I mean... thanks.