'Hamlet' On An Elevator? The Bard Gets A New Venue

Oct 22, 2011
Originally published on October 22, 2011 10:49 am

Wearing suits and somewhat harried expressions, veteran actors Michael Rothhaar and Tony Pasqualini blend right in with the lunch crowd of this Los Angeles office building.

As they head into the packed elevator, Rothhaar and Pasqualini jockey for a spot in the back. When the doors close, that's their cue.

"Lord, I think I saw him yesternight," Pasqualini says.

"Saw? Who?" Rothhaar replies.

"Lord, the king your father."

"The king, my father!"

"A figure like your father, armed at all points."

It's hard to tell if anyone recognizes this as a scene from Hamlet. The elevator audience stares straight ahead or concentrates on the changing floor numbers. Some fumble with their phones.

The Audience Reaction

Rothhaar and Pasqualini are part of Salty Shakespeare, a California theater group dedicated to bringing Shakespeare to public spaces in a way that penetrates the electronic wall that often surrounds us. The group has performed on Venice Beach and currently has plans to take Romeo and Juliet to a shopping mall.

Back on the elevator, once the doors open, people move quickly. Not all of them realize that they've just witnessed a performance.

"I thought they were practicing for their night job ... as actors," says Finley Moll. "It's L.A."

Moll took the Elizabethan moment all in stride, but Amanda Dorinson-Greenfield was a bit confused.

"Were they actually talking about the Bible in an elevator in the California Mart?" she says.

Helen Kaufmann says she recognized the Shakespeare dialogue by the third floor, but stuck to elevator etiquette.

"If they were having a lovers' quarrel, people would be silent as well," she says, "but there's something kind of cool about hearing Shakespeare when you least expect it."

That's what actress and director Nancy Linehan Charles had in mind when she formed Salty Shakespeare.

"I have been trying to find ways my whole life to make Shakespeare accessible to people," she says.

'Awesome The Whole Ride Down'

Despite all the distractions, including a cell phone call and the inattention of their audience (an actor's nightmare), actors Pasqualini and Rothhaar — Horatio and Hamlet, respectively — don't miss a beat.

"It's like, 'Who's talking? What are they talking about? Oh, should I pay attention? Maybe not. Oh, his father's dead,' " Rothhaar says, laughing.

It only took Pamela Switzler three floors to catch on.

"I was like, they're doing Shakespeare," she says. "It was awesome the whole ride down ... Actually, when we were done and the doors opened, I wanted to clap."

A little applause would have been nice for the actors. The audience always seems to be walking out on them — sometimes in the middle of a scene. But for these actors, it's just another way to bring a little iambic pentameter to unexpected places.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

William Shakespeare is once again center stage. A dramatic film comes out this month that questions whether the bard was the true author of his celebrated works. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles a Shakespeare company is trying to introduce a little more iambic pentameter into people's lives in unexpected places. Gloria Hillard brings us the story from a downtown high-rise.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Wearing suits and somewhat harried expressions, veteran actors Michael Rothhaar and Tony Pasqualini blend right in with the lunch crowd of this office building.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR DINGING)

HILLARD: Rothhaar and Pasqualini jockey for their position in the rear of the packed elevator. When the doors close, that's their cue.

TONY PASQUALINI: (as Horatio) Lord, I think I saw him yester night.

MICHAEL ROTHHAAR: (as Hamlet) Saw who?

PASQUALINI: (as Horatio) Lord, the king your father.

ROTHHAAR: (as Hamlet) The king, my father?

PASQUALINI: (as Horatio) A figure like your father, armed at all points.

HILLARD: It was hard to tell if anyone recognized this was a scene from Hamlet. The elevator audience stared straight ahead or concentrated on the changing floor numbers, others fumbled with their phones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR DINGING)

ROTHHAAR: (as Hamlet) The king, my father?

HILLARD: On the ride back down to the lobby it was another packed house.

ROTHHAAR: (as Hamlet) Armed you say?

PASQUALINI: (as Horatio) Armed, my lord.

ROTHHAAR: (as Hamlet) From top to toe?

PASQUALINI: (as Horatio) My lord, from head to foot.

ROTHHAAR: (as Hamlet) And saw you not his face?

HILLARD: People move quickly once those doors open.

Did you notice anything unusual in the elevator?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No.

FINLEY MOLL: I thought they were practicing for their night job.

HILLARD: As actors?

MOLL: As actors, yes. It's L.A.

HILLARD: Finley Moll took the Elizabethan moment all in stride, but Amanda Dorinson-Greenfield was confused.

AMANDA DORINSON GREENFIELD: We're they actually talking about the bible in an elevator in the California Mart?

PASQUALINI: (as Horatio) I'll speak to it, though hell itself should gape and bid me hold my peace.

HILLARD: Elevator passenger Helen Kaufmann says she recognized the Shakespeare dialogue by the third floor, but adhered to elevator etiquette.

HELEN KAUFMANN: If they were having a lover's quarrel people would be silent as well. But there's something kind of cool about hearing Shakespeare when you least expect it.

HILLARD: That's what actress and director Nancy Linehan-Charles had in mind when she formed the Salty Shakespeare Company. The group has performed on Venice Beach and has plans to take Romeo and Juliet to a shopping mall.

NANCY LINEHAN-CHARLES: I had been trying to find ways my whole life to make Shakespeare accessible to people.

ROTHHAAR: (as Hamlet) Did you not speak to it?

PASQUALINI: (as Horatio) I did, my lord, but answer made it none. And once we thought - once we thought it lifted up its head...

HILLARD: Actor Tony Pasqualini as Horatio and Michael Rothhaar as Hamlet didn't miss a beat despite all the distractions and, well, an actor's nightmare – the inattention of their audience.

ROTHHAAR: It comes out of one of them, it's like who's talking? What are they talking about? Oh, should I pay attention? Oh, maybe not. Oh, his father's dead. Hopefully, they go that far. I don't know.

(as Hamlet) My father's spirit in arms. All is not well.

HILLARD: It only took Pamela Switzler three floors to catch on.

PAMELA SWITZLER: I was like, they're doing Shakespeare. It was awesome the whole ride down. Loved it. Actually, when we were done and the doors opened I wanted to clap, but then, you know, I was like, oh, never mind.

HILLARD: A little applause would have been nice for the actors. As it was, the audience was always walking out – sometimes in the middle of the scene.

ROTHHAAR: (as Hamlet) All is not well. Be still my heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR DINGING)

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.