With the audience seated tightly together in a cluttered utility room, the stage manager turns off the only light, leaves the room and shuts the door. So begins Janus Theatre Company's promenade-style production of The Tragical History of Hamlet.
The action takes place in a series of minimally-lit "found spaces" within the Elgin Art Showcase, divided by black curtains. Between each of its eight segments adapted from historic versions of the original play, the audience moves through a doorway or a draped passage to another small set, where the cast performs a classic scene in Janus's trademark intimate style.
Described metaphorically by Artistic Director Sean Hargadon as "a maze of Hamlet's mind," the sequence of spaces borrows ingeniously from the modern-day theatrical haunted house, in which a group of strangers is ushered through harshly lit, draped rooms amid disembodied noises, images of violence and intermittent appearances by ghosts. It's the perfect vehicle in which to experience the psychodramatic journey of Hamlet.
But there are few props, minimal makeup and costume — nothing to distract from Shakespeare's story and brilliant use of language. Unfazed by the Elizabethan English of the script, the actors trade lines as if they were written yesterday, yet you'll recognize many of the Bard's famous phrases and snippets of verse that have taken on lives of their own.
And you'll feel an attachment to the characters unlike anything you've experienced in an auditorium. The action is so close, you are inside the scene — and seeing the raw humanity of skin, spit, and sweat as actors stammer and tussle their way through dialogues activates all the emotions that drama is supposed to evoke.
The cast is anchored by returning Janus players Kelly Bolton, whose cunning comedic delivery was perfectly cast as the Gravedigger, and Melody Jefferies (Ophelia), whose command of character never fails to amaze us.
Newcomer Jim Hinton (Ghost/Claudius) is in fact a highly experienced actor and singer whose excellence of craft is apparent, and Joe Cattoggio in the title role channeled a conflicted and introspective Hamlet through his own naturally tense and impetuous persona. The tears we held back in the final scene with Ben Vogt (Horatio) were quite unexpected.
The Tragical History of Hamlet continues through May 7th. See www.janusplays.com for exact dates and times.