January 28, 2019

Watergate-Era Hamlet Opens at Black Box Peabody

by cns2020

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What: Hamlet
Where: Peabody’s Black Box Theatre, Peabody MA
When: February 1&2, 8&9 at 7:30 PM, February 3 Matinee at 2:00 PM
Runtime: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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Joey Phoenix talks to Jillian Blevins, Director of Hamlet, the first theatrical production by the Creative Collective.

Hamlet in turtleneck in front of statue

Tell us about yourself and what you do:

I’m an actor, director, and dramaturge who lives in Peabody MA. I’ve been making theatre for over 20 years — all kinds, from original work to musicals to Commedia – but Shakespeare has always been a special passion of mine.

Give us a rundown on this production of Hamlet and why people need to see it.

This production arose out of a conversation about how setting Shakespeare plays in a specific time and place can bring out resonances in the text in ways that “doublets and hose” Shakespeare often doesn’t.

I’ve seen several productions of Hamlet that treat it as a family drama – which of course it is – but it’s also a deeply political play, full of espionage, intergenerational mistrust, tension between the sexes, cynicism about power and those who wield it, and faraway war that’s causing things to crumble at home. We decided to set the play in the early 1970’s, casting King Claudius as kind of a Nixon figure, and then lots of other elements of the play started to fall quickly into place: Hamlet’s college friends from Wittenburg became radical students, his old buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were young Republicans, the war in Poland (and Laertes’ time away in France) became a stand-in for the Vietnam war.

One of the things I’m most enthusiastic about in our production is our take on Ophelia, who has a bit more backbone in our version of the play, courtesy of early 70’s feminism and some spirited folk singing. Hamlet himself is stuck in the middle of it all – a world that is different than he believed it was, corruption that’s infecting his family and his country, complicated feelings about women, a war he’s ambivalent about.

Ophelia with Guitar on couch

It feels perfect for the Watergate era, but also perfect for right now. Shakespeare is universally relatable – that’s why it’s endured and is so frequently produced – and it also contains a kind of magic that allows these stories to time travel and take on new meaning.

I also think that Peabody is ripe for more culture. The revitalization of Main Street and the existence of ArcWorks itself is really making it clear that Peabody is an up-and-coming spot for music, art, and theatre. The excitement that’s been generated about having live theatre being made right here in my city has been palpable since our production was announced.

The cast is incredibly versatile, dedicated and talented. We have 14 actors, including 4 ensemble players who take on multiple roles and showcase some incredible powers of transformation. Hamlet is full of pathos, but it’s also darkly funny – we’re constantly surprised by how much we make each other laugh in rehearsal.

How are you planning to adapt this classic show to the Peabody space?

We’re really letting the storytelling take the front seat. The Black Box at ArcWorks is a beautiful space, large, with great acoustics. We’re using the size of the space to our advantage, staging in every possible corner of the room. One of the reasons I fell in love with the space was its unique industrial architectural elements, like the catwalk, the raw concrete floors, and the garage door – rather than try to hide those elements, we’re embracing them, which I think evokes a stark and edgy vibe and will also offer the audience some surprises.

What are some special elements about this production – setting, costume, direction, and choreography?

The early 70’s setting is being communicated primarily through direction, music, and costumes. Our costume designer, Shannon Keelan, has done a great job of figuring out who these characters are in this world. (Expect to see some excellent hippie fashion from Horatio.)

Man cradles Hamlet

We are using a mix of live and recorded music in our production. Music has always been important to me as a director; when your audience sits down, what they hear is getting them ready to receive the play. We picked recorded music from the period that communicated the alienation, paranoia, rebellion and cynicism inherent both in the play and the political climate. Live music comes from a few sources; Maddie Roth, who plays Ophelia, has written some Joan Baez-inspired folk music to Shakespeare’s lyrics; Slava Tchoul and Ashley Skeffington, in the ensemble, are both musicians as well, and they bring their talents to their roles as the players in the play-within-the-play.

Our fight choreography is also top-notch. Nick Gould, who plays the Ghost and the Gravedigger, serves as our fight choreographer as well. He’s created a really exciting climactic fencing match and some other edge-of-your-seat moments of violence that feel both surprising and authentic to the characters.

Anything else you would like to add?

I have tremendous gratitude towards Carly Dwyer Naik and Creative Collective for taking a chance on producing theatre. It’s a new frontier for the Collective, and their support has been invaluable towards getting our production off the ground. I hope that this production opens doors for other theatre artists to make work under the Creative Collective umbrella and in the Peabody Black Box. It’s exciting to be working on an “old” play and at the same time to be blazing new trails.

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About Creative Collective: Creative Collective is a business program that provides opportunities for small businesses, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, organizations and individuals that are looking for a more modern and creative approach to business growth and brand awareness.

Joey Phoenix is a performance artist, pet photographer, and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. Follow them on Twitter @jphoenixmedia. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at joey@jphoenixmedia.com