Let's Away to Prison

We Players' Interpretation of 'Hamlet' Transports Shakespeare's Tragedy to Iconic Modern Landscape

Tracy Martin/We Players/Courtesy

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I hadn't been to Alcatraz since a fourth grade field trip. My memories were limited to the things I found interesting as a pretty typical 12-year-old - namely, playing spitting contests with friends off the side of the ferry.

What I didn't remember about Alcatraz was how beautiful the view is. The only better vantage of the Golden Gate Bridge would come from the deck of a ship passing through it. But even on a nice day, when one can see the sun's reflection on the dome of San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, Alcatraz is bleak.

As I stood admiring the combination of metropolis and nature that makes the Bay so interesting to stare at, I felt the faint, nagging anxiety that somehow the last ferry would depart and I would be left all alone on the Rock. It is precisely this loneliness that makes Alcatraz Island the perfect stage for "Hamlet."

We Players, led by founder and artistic director Ava Roy, transform Alcatraz into Elsinore, creating a moving production of Shakespeare's enduring work. The performance begins during the ferry ride, then spills out onto the landing dock, moves up to the cellblock and continues all the way around the island.

Virtually every scene occurs at a different location, requiring that the audience be attentive and wear comfy shoes. This kind of on-site theater has been Ava Roy's medium since her days as a freshman at Stanford.

During an interview, she told me that provoking curiosity is one of the main motivations behind this kind of work, which regularly causes unknowing Alcatraz visitors to stop and stare in confusion. "I'm trying to expand how we think about our public spaces, and engage the audience members more fully," she says, calling it "an experiment to see how people respond."

In her first production, "Romeo and Juliet," she staged the opening scene in the Stanford cafeteria. As the confrontation between the Montagues and the Capulets escalated into a brawl, students eating lunch found the scene hard to ignore. Many of them followed the play as it moved out of the cafeteria and continued across the campus.

"Hamlet" is full of angst, anger, violence and sadness - emotions that linger among Alcatraz's decaying structures like the smell of salt water. Based on her previous site-specific work - "Macbeth" at Fort Point, "The Tempest" on the Albany Bulb - the National Park Service invited We Players to make a stage of Alcatraz. "My initial gut reaction was to do 'Hamlet,' but it felt too obvious," says Ava. After six months of research and deliberation, she went with her gut.

"Denmark's a prison," says Hamlet, whose mind is a mess of emotion after the death of his father, the former king, whose brother has married the queen and taken the throne. Hamlet's remark, and his mania, is manifest in the rusted pipes, collapsed roofs and abandoned buildings that dominate the island. While common interpretation is that Hamlet's mind has twisted Elsinore into this apocalyptic world, being on Alcatraz opens up another possibility. Perhaps he is going crazy because Elsinore is in ruins, and yet everyone around him carries on as usual.

As I followed the performance, accompanied by five musicians and Charlie Gurke's eerie, mood-setting jazz, I engaged with the play on a level beyond that of a spectator. To see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern standing along the path, distractedly considering Hamlet's mystifying words, and their own fates should they fail to decipher them for the king, was to realize my complete immersion in the story.

In deciding where to stage each scene, and which route to take between them, Ava sought to "match the energy of the scene with the energy of the space." It took her months of reading and exploring the island to compose the route, a good portion of which lay in cliffside sections of the island normally closed to visitors.

There was nothing gimmicky about performing "Hamlet" on the Rock; its various locations were used purposefully and effectively.

As both actor and guide, Steve Boss walked with the audience of 60 or so, leading us from scene to scene.

"There's a fine line between letting people enjoy the surroundings, stopping to take pictures and trying to move them along," he says. "I try to help maintain the focus."

Steve has worked with Ava twice before, and cites her inspirational quality as the driving force behind "Hamlet." According to him, Ava is not one to take shortcuts. "Some of the logistical stuff would make my head spin. Sometimes I would think, 'What the hell, Ava?' But she's intrepid, and she did everything for a reason."

The challenges the island provided were more than worth the effort. For Steve, the setting makes the show. "When did the island speak to you?" he asked me near the end of our conversation. I wasn't sure I knew what he meant, but I told him about a moment at the northern edge of the island, from which point I could look straight out through the Golden Gate to the Pacific and imagine what lay beyond. The bell buoy chimed evenly, the waves crashed faintly at the bottom of the cliff, and the thought of being left behind on Alcatraz no longer seemed like something to fear. "Yes," he said, as though savoring the memory, "I know that place."


Plan a return to Alcatraz with Nick at [email protected]

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