Last Friday night, my husband, daughter and I, along with about 40 other sash-draped passengers, boarded a late afternoon ferry for Alcatraz to observe and participate in the We Players’ production of Hamlet on Alcatraz. (The sashes were our ‘tickets’) The performance is a collaboration between the theater troupe and the National Park Service, bringing interactive theater to public spaces. The troupe’s Alcatraz Residency aims to provoke “awareness and conversation around the issues of incarceration, isolation, justice, and redemption,” and what better play to exemplify these issues than Hamlet?
Even before the ferry touched dock, Francisco and Bernardo burst into our midst proclaiming the death of the King and the distress of his son, Hamlet. As we followed them onto the island, the ghost appeared at the top of the guard house as the sentinels tell Horatio what they have seen.
For the next 3 ½ hours, we followed the players and a group of musicians (trumpet, trombone, saxophone, percussion and stand-up bass) over winding paths, up narrow staircases, in and out of the crumbling prison. At one point, we were instructed to divide into four cell blocks, which I knew from a previous visit had once housed the most notorious of Alcatraz’s inmates, including the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud. The damp, stark, claustrophobic surroundings served as evocative reminders of the fate of the incarcerated.
Hamlet was played with passion by Andrus Nichols, who lent the intensity of her strong features to convincing us that she was the melancholy, tormented prince. And the mercurial Jack Halton infused the character of Polonius with nuance and heart.
After we watched Ophelia buried in a shallow grave by Halton recast as a penitentiary inmate, the final scene was staged outside in the main prison yard, lit by bonfires and kerosene lamps. As all but Horatio lay dead on the lonely windswept stage, the city twinkled like a jewel box across the Bay, reminding us of the preciousness of freedom and how quickly all is lost.
For a glimpse from the pre-production rehearsals check out: http://kck.st/axmn3v