PORT TOWNSEND — Chetzemoka Park, named for the Klallam chief of the 1800s, is a place of towering evergreens and great blue herons. Come summer, it’s a spot for Shakespeare. And Vikings.
Key City Public Theatre, in its annual Shakespeare in the Park production, today opens “Hamlet,” the Prince of Denmark’s saga — this time set in the Viking Age replete with Norse gods, ghosts and a live cellist. Camp chairs, too.
Playgoers are invited to bring their chairs along with blankets and picnics for these performances, which run four weekends in the park overlooking Port Townsend Bay.
You’ve never experienced a “Hamlet” like this one, promises Dillon Porter, the man with the title role. Theater lovers around here have seen him play Garth the Norwegian in Key City’s “Wolf at the Door” and Tom the dangerous lover in “Murder Ballad;” this time he’s the Danish would-be king who might be mad.
“Strengthen your sinews, and bring yourself forth,” said Porter, who has no trouble finding parallels between Shakespeare’s tale and contemporary America. The play, which Key City calls “the Big One,” is about deception, corruption, love and truth.
“It’s also a thrilling journey to go on,” said Rosaletta Curry, who plays the prince’s love interest, Ophelia.
In this setting, Ophelia is a powerful woman, a Viking shield maiden. She “loves very deeply and loyally. She thinks of others before herself,” Curry added; “it’s an incredible, intense and rewarding journey to play her.”
Marc Weinblatt of Port Townsend’s Mandala Center for Change is the director of the large cast, including Lawrie Driscoll as Ophelia’s father, Polonius; Sam Cavallaro is the Gravedigger; Christa Holbrook as Marcella; David Traylor as Laertes and Brendan Chambers as Horatio. Ciel Pope and Caleb Lumbard are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively.
For Crystal Eisele, who plays the prince’s mother Gertrude, “Hamlet” is, among the other things, an exploration of relationships and the struggle to connect. She seeks to portray Gertrude’s passionate nature, along with her desire to understand her son. It’s one of Eisele favorite plays, and she said watching it unfold at Chetzemoka — sword fights, kissing, comic bits and all — is an experience both communal and cathartic.
“A play is never really alive until it has an audience,” Eisele said. Witnessing it alongside your neighbors is a knockout.
Brace Evans plays King Claudius, whom he sees as a man not only of strength and resolve, but also love and compassion.
“As an actor, it is about finding the character’s truth as part of myself,” he said. “I didn’t know I was ready to play this role. But I was ready to explore and perform more Shakespeare. It was an opportunity to test my capacity.”
Oh yes, the bard can intimidate us, Evans acknowledged, especially if it’s the first time.
His advice: “Grab a lawn chair and come out to the park to hear the trees rustle in the wind or waves roll up to the shore.” Before you know it, you’ll catch the thrill that is Shakespeare’s poetry.
“There is no test afterward,” Curry added.
The director, meanwhile, is determined to make the show accessible to everybody who passes through Chetzemoka’s gate.
“If we are doing our job right, anyone can understand Shakespeare,” Weinblatt said.
“Like a fine horse, truly great poetry needs a great rider to show its greatness.
“I believe our extraordinary cast rides this poetry with the heightened skill necessary.
“Plus we have added pageantry: puppets, music … My 5-year-old son Darius loves it, begging to come to rehearsal every day.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.