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Evanston’s own Muse of Fire theatre company is producing the most widely studied play ever, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” along with a family-friendly “Cymbeline” this summer in the park.

In its seventh year serving the Evanston community, Muse of Fire’s approach to “Hamlet” may prove enlightening, even for those intimate with the text. Artistic Director Jemma Levy, Hamlet (Alex Fthenakis), and “Cymbeline” director Eric Damon Smith met with Evanston Now for a coffee chat about the directness of Shakespeare in performance today.

JEMMA LEVY: What makes us unique is our focus on direct address, engaging the audience directly instead of going over their heads. We aren’t yanking people onstage; we honor the text. 

The work we do is cutting. Like “Cymbeline”: 47 plots. And “Hamlet” is notoriously 4 hours long; we cut it to 2.5 hours. While we honor the text, we subtly challenge traditional interpretations. We’re not setting “Hamlet” on Mars- we’re telling the same story Shakespeare is telling- but looking at it from a different angle. This “Hamlet” is still interesting for someone who’s seen “Hamlet“ 400 times.

Levy pointed out multiple times how Shakespeare’s language “allows for direct address” and can be used to engage the audience. This allows Muse of Fire to produce active and clear productions of Shakespeare for everyone, without specifying minutia and closing off the audience.

LEVY: You [the audience] are actually physically in the same space. “Please don’t move past here” because you’ll get hit by a sword, but you’re in the same space. Hamlet’s monologues are normally staged as philosophical treatises, which are literally [spoken upward] and figuratively over everyone’s heads. We use the audience members as scene partners.

ALEX FTHENAKIS: Our shows are different because we never talk about a specific “concept” for anything- we make it as engaging as possible for the audience.

LEVY: We’re not gonna pretend that we can’t all see each other… we perform in a park, so nobody onstage pretends that they don’t see a squirrel scoot across the stage.

FTHENAKIS: There’s a term that I’m trying to coin, which is campfire theatre. It’s as if we are sitting around a campfire, telling stories in a communal way.

Of course, producing “Hamlet” has its drawbacks, including high expectations from the audience. But Alex Fthenakis, Muse of Fire’s key player for the production, isn’t too worried.

FTHENAKIS: I’m trying not to let it become a big looming thing, because the second you tell someone you’re playing Hamlet…I’m trying to treat it like any other role. 

I’m interested in how Hamlet’s in the face of an establishment that isn’t serving those it should serve. It’s not really in a position that can be challenged, but he does it anyway. I would love it if everyone would walk away thinking it was about “this” or “that” establishment.

Fthenakis is using the direct address style of Muse of Fire to enliven his Hamlet. By using the audience, he said, “Suddenly there’s a reason to say these things as Hamlet.”

Muse of Fire’s productions are all outside (weather permitting) and they use the park to their advantage. As a professional theatre company co-sponsored by the city, they are best known for these productions of summer Shakespeare in the park.

LEVY: Outdoors, we don’t have a set. (We often work with these two beautiful, gigantic trees.) Costuming is the crucial visual element- and fight choreography. We go for a “feel” rather than a specific time and place.

Part of our mission is to make our plays accessible: they’re free, they’re easy to get to, and they need to be intellectually accessible. We want people to go away getting the story, thinking “it was about me and my world.”

In the spirit of accessibility, Muse of Fire’s summer production for family audiences is a shortened “Cymbeline,” Shakespeare’s ultimate nod to the recycled plot.

LEVY: “Cymbeline” is an amazing story and it’s incredibly fun. It’s essentially a fairytale. It’s got a wicked stepmother! That cracked me up when I found out. This is every Shakespeare plot rolled into one, which is why it’s hard to produce and why it’s fun. This is something a 5-year-old and a 95-year-old can get what they need to get out of. It’d make a great Disney movie.

“Cymbeline” director Eric Damon Smith pitches the play as a clear, physical telling of Shakespeare’s original work.

ERIC DAMON SMITH: In cutting the play into an hour running time, I focused on the essential relationships. When cutting a language-driven play to a third of its usual running length, using clear, physical storytelling helps the audience grasp the complex plot. Highly committed actors who embrace bold movement while speaking the beautiful poetry of the play is electric, and any audience member, regardless of their experience with Shakespeare, is sure to find “Cymbeline” engaging!

Muse of Fire is made up of many committed artists who believe that their work can only be made in Evanston. Levy and Fthenakis both live in other locations, but come back when Shakespeare calls.

LEVY: A friend of mine used a phrase that I liked: “it’s not community theatre, but it’s theatre for the community.” Evanston is sometimes sloughed to the side in favor of Chicago’s theatre community. But our show is here and it’s yours, it is a gift to you- you can bring your dog, and a picnic… you cannot bring alcohol! Because it’s a public park. If you don’t like the show, you can leave! Or you can come back. 

We’re successful as a theatre company, at this point. People say, “Why don’t you move it?” But we wouldn’t have what we do it for. We need something that represents this part of the world, too.

“Cymbeline” runs June 13 – July 5 at Ingraham Park in Evanston.
“Hamlet” runs July 25 – Aug. 30 (no outdoor shows Aug. 22 and 23) at Ingraham Park in Evanston.

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