There has been a particular delight in setting up this “Folk Hamlet.” Spending the past month readying for tonight’s (yes, tonight’s!) performance for you (yes, you, stranger). We have been gathering tinder, hewing logs that will burn, and rolling the stones that will bask in the heat of our as-yet unkindled fire. But it is you, and your attention, who will provide the spark that will bring it to life. 

This is a work of site-specific theater, always a fun bronco to ride. Site-specific is a wild horse who is sure to throw surprises at you (rain, snow, sleet, gloom of night, car alarms, wild critters, etc). A wild horse, but if you hold on tight, boy, can it take you places. You are seated in the Women’s Ward of the Old Pen, a place whose stones have soaked up decades of misery and melancholy, much as any Danish fortress. You will watch evening fall across Table Rock, a sacred site for many of the First Nations, who came to worship and trade and tell stories for millennia. You will feel the chill as a spring night gathers about you, and might, in the flickering shadows, catch a glimpse of the ghosts that haunt this place. 

You’ll also see a group of actors crack into one of the cornerstones of the dramatic and literary canon and hold up the strange patterns and brilliant flecks of mica we can find. Hayden Pedersen, our ferociously inventive director, a coaxer of social sinew, has time and again dared the company to dive deep into the dark waters of the play, and has handed us treasures (little bits of business, scrounged props, tiny questions that pivot a scene, weathervane-like, to a whole new direction) to help anchor us there. I have watched my fellow cast members go through discovery after discovery, fashioning moments of cruelty and kindness, relationships that are told in a touch, or despairs that hover over a character like a crushing weight on a fraying string. 

For my own part, I always wanted to see a Cowboy Hamlet, the Melancholy Prince in stetson and duster, in a frontier world of swordslingers, (thanks for that Hayden.) The “Old West” as we think of it was a post-apocalyptic hellscape, a land scourged of its rightful inhabitants, where the settlers who stumbled blind across the country of unforgiving gods, where men and women’s lives were plagued by tragedy and cut short by violence. Where the vastness of the sky, the exquisite desolation, could winnow a soul empty. Where a fatherless man, set adrift, could strike out on a quest to set right what was wrong, and make a bloody hash of it. 

This is Shakespeare at the bones: the language which beats with the heart’s pumps and the mind’s best imaginings, the wills of artists who can carve the eternal out of a 400 year old play, and placed under a sky of western stars, and called up over haunted stones. 

Come to our fire, stranger. Come hear our story.

Written by Ben Kemper on April 3, 2023. Ben plays Polonius, the ghost of King Hamlet, and the gravedigger in Hamlet.