Ojai, California, nestled in a valley seventy five miles north of Los Angeles, lures visitors from all over with its world-class spas, idyllic natural beauty, and friendly, small-town feel. In June, music lovers flock to Ojai for the famous Music Festival, art lovers come in October for the Studio Artist’s Tour, and now theater lovers have their own reason to make the trek to the village locals refer to as “Shangri-La.”
Theater 150, already well loved by Ojai residents for its top-notch local productions, recently made a bold leap into full professional status, and is mounting its first Equity production: Hamlet, opening July 18. Guest director Jessica Kubzansky calls Hamlet “The best play in the world” and promises “a thrill ride” for actors and audiences alike. The award-winning Kubzansky, Co-Artistic Director of Pasadena’s Boston Court Theater, has long dreamt of directing Hamlet. She is “…profoundly moved by the rich and deep and flawed humanity in this play” and has temporarily relocated to Ojai to bring Shakespeare’s most famous characters to new life for Theater 150 audiences.
Chris Nottoli and Deb Norton, Theater 150’s dynamic artistic team, chose Hamlet to mark the already top-notch local theater’s debut as a Small Professional Theater or SPT (the distinction the Actors’ Equity Union gives to small, emerging professional theaters), not only for its 400-year track record, but because they believe there is something very timely about the piece itself.
“It’s a story about a guy who’s perfectly happy in his ivory tower, who gets wrenched home to discover an enormous mess which doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. He isn’t prepared to deal with it. But in the course of the play, he chooses to step up and face it,” explains Nottoli. “ ‘The readiness is all,’” he quotes. “The readiness to face your destiny, to make seemingly impossible choices, to do what it takes.” Nottoli and Norton see a parallel in the challenge Hamlet faced, to the challenges facing the arts in today’s economy “People ask how we are taking these giant steps forward when many other arts organizations are forced to send up the white flag,” says Nottoli, “and it’s simply this: We only had two choices, and the other one was quit. The mission of this non-profit is to create the best possible productions in Ojai and going unequivocally pro was the next step.” The community has responded enthusiastically by tripling of the size of T150’s board of directors and contributing huge new sums of money. “This is clearly what the people want and we are honored to deliver,” says Nottoli. “As a theater, we chose to ‘take arms against the sea of troubles’ now, and step up to the call, rather than hesitate until it was too late.”
Interpretations of Hamlet and the title character have changed drastically throughout the play’s history. The Jacobeans loved Hamlet’s madness and melancholy, Restoration critics saw the play and character as primitive and lacking in decorum. In the 18th century, Hamlet was recast as a hero, a pure and brilliant man thrust into damning circumstance. By the 19th century, the Romantics loved the character for his complex internal struggles. In the twentieth century, Freudian interpretations fetishized Hamlet’s struggle as an Oedipal fixation on his mother.
Kubzansky has seen dozens of productions of Hamlet in the years she’s been waiting for the perfect chance to direct it, and her Hamlet, played, as she says, “by the truly astonishing Leo Marks,” lives in “a young and vibrant kingdom in a time when monarchies matter. He is a perpetual student who suddenly has to grapple with affairs of state.” The production is set in a world inspired by the 16th century but with a fluid modern influence, so that the people don’t feel encrusted in the past. “This is a passionate, alive, terrifying, dangerous place to be,” she says, “both in Hamlet’s head and out of it, and I want the world to be immediate, visceral, evocative.”
The 150’s black-box theater is being completely re-configured to accommodate this play. Audiences will appreciate the intimacy the new configuration offers. “We’ve done ‘theater in your lap’ and ‘tempests in a teacup,’ so why not ‘fencing at your feet?’ asks Nottoli, referring to the theater’s tiny (42 seat) original home. “We can do it safely because the actors are professionals, and they are training non-stop. There is no way to ‘fake it’ when you’re this close. I guarantee, you’ve never seen anything like it in Ojai.”
Which is why they are doing it. Nottoli and Norton, singled out by Ventana magazine as two of the forward-moving “9 for 2009” cite the words of Orson Welles as their guiding principle: “Don’t give them what they want, give them what they never thought was possible.” Their vision is to bring world-class professional theater to Ojai, both for the theater lovers of the community and the visitors who are already lured by Ojai’s international reputation as an artistic Mecca.
“Our Hamlet brings the best artists, working at the top of their game, to Ojai,” says Norton. “It’s our vision coming true.”
Those artists are finding Ojai to their liking as well. Kubzanski, when asked why she would come to Ojai to Ojai, laughed, “I can’t see why people would leave here. It’s beautiful, relaxed… and I love how many brilliant people I’ve met here.”
Leo Marks (AEA), playing Hamlet, goes for a run in the hills every morning, and says “It’s great to get out of the city [Los Angeles] to do this. It’s a huge show and we’re putting it together in a fairly short time. You can’t afford to lose any rehearsals. Ojai, allows serenity to focus you, not panic.” Tim Cummings (AEA), who plays Polonius adds: “To be living in Ojai, doing Shakespeare with Jessica Kubzansky, and getting paid for it, transposes Hamlet –our most renown tragedy– into an exhilarating fantasy.”
Theater 150 is named for the state highway that runs through town. The artistic team has plans to bring theater lovers along that highway for both a summer Classics Festival, and a winter New Works Festival. Hamlet is the summer festival’s first “shot over the bow,” explains Nottoli. Ojai embraces the 150’s vision of a world-class theater whole-heartedly. Local merchants are participating in a cross-marketing “Hamlet Trading Card” program, spreading awareness of the play and encouraging residents and visitors to visit their businesses. Several local Inns and B&B’s have gotten involved as well, offering “Play and Stay” discounts for guests coming to town to see Hamlet.
“We are really looking forward to this production” says Ojai City Council member and former Mayor, Sue Horgan, “Theater 150 already brings a lot to the community, and we are glad to have another great offering for our visitors. If you’ve been looking for a reason to visit Ojai, and you love great theater, the time is now.”
by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Jessica Kubzansky
Featuring Leo Marks as Hamlet
316 E. Matilija Street
Ojai, CA 93023
Previews July 16 and 17: 8PM
July 18: 8PM -Opening Night Gala
Runs July 19-August 8
Tickets $15-$29 Gala-$50
Sundays, as always, 2-for-1
For more information or reservations
Please call the Theater at: 805-646-4300
Or visit: http://www.theater150.org
HAMLET TRADING CARDS
Theater 150’s flagship professional production features a dozen of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, and soon you will be able to collect all twelve!
Participating merchants will have the trading cards available free with store purchase. Will you get Horatio? Ophelia? Laertes? Rosencrantz? Guildenstern? Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, the Player King and Queen, and of course, the Melancholy Dane himself round out the deck. But who is on the twelfth card? For if you collect all twelve, you will be able to piece together the puzzle on the back, and collect a prize. Prizes available for certain combinations as well. Stay tuned, more details to come.
“There are more things on Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”