The Performant: The fortress of solitude and “Hamlet” on Alcatraz

Pub date October 13, 2010
SectionPixel Vision

I notice them first on the ferry, two young men in suspenders and ties deep in conversation. One wears a beanie and designer sunglasses. Nothing special. The view of the approaching island etched against the uncharacteristically clear sky is more enticing. But when they burst onto the main deck amidst the passengers, and speak loudly of their journey to Elsinore, it’s clear that the play’s the thing. To be precise, the We Players‘ experiential performance-thing of “Hamlet” now being staged on Alcatraz.

Hustled out onto the landing dock after the ferry ride, the oddience is soon surrounded by the unfolding action. There, running along the narrow walkways girding the abandoned barracks of Building 64, is Barnardo (Kevin Singer) with his unsettling news. Here, a group of black-clad musicians heralds the eerie appearance of not just one, but five apparitions of the deceased king, whose masked face materializes ominously from behind bushes and stairwells. The new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Scott D. Phillips), holds court before a tangle of brush and chainlink fencing, while Hamlet (Andrus Nichols) denounces his deeds in front of same.

Upon being moved upon, we surge forward in hot pursuit of Hamlet as he races in hot pursuit of the ghost, his father. Pursuit is a theme well-examined within Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Hamlet pursues revenge and Ophelia’s (Misti Boettiger) affections both, while Claudius’ pursuit of power, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s (Kevin Singer and Ross Travis) pursuit of reward, and Laertes’ (Benjamin Stowe) pursuit of ambition abroad drive them to purpose if not to sensibility. Isolation too plays a role: Hamlet gradually isolates himself from the good graces of everyone save his loyal Horatio (Nicholas Trengove) and then there’s Elsinore itself, surrounded by water and the stultified air of provincial familiarity, equally isolated from the rest of Denmark — indeed, Europe.

This melancholy undercurrent of isolation is what makes Alcatraz such an ideal location for the staging of this classic ghost story. A distinctive, craggy presence in a deceptively tame-looking bay, Alcatraz has guarded its shores and mostly unwilling inhabitants for centuries, with icy currents and unfriendly rock. Haunted (at least metaphorically) by the ghosts of incarcerated prisoners of war, assimilation-resisting American Indians, conscientious objectors, and bank robbers, its stony paths and gloomy corridors bear uncanny resemblance to the equally dismal wreckage of any old European fortress gone to seed.

Indeed, the setting is so central to this nimbly-executed, three-hour performance, you could almost list Alcatraz as a cast member rather than a staging ground. Whether supporting a wily troupe of traveling players in the line-crossed palm of what was once a parade ground, or cradling the disintegrating remains of Ophelia’s sanity within its crumbling walls, the fortress, like Hamlet, yields no quarter, though unlike Hamlet, it’s still left standing after the bloodbath of the final act. Gathered once more on the parade ground, ringed with fire, lanterns, and stars, we watch the treacherous killing of Hamlet, and the swift justice inadvertently meted out to his murderers, while the roving eye of the lighthouse above us glances not unsympathetically at such frail human antics. The rest is silence. 


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Alcatraz Island, SF

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