On Stage

Classic Tale, Modern Twist

Shakespeare gets a smartphone for TRIST’s updated outdoor production of Hamlet

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The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater (TRIST) has a history of delivering lively plays to audiences across the state. For the last seven seasons, they’ve found a home at Roger Williams National Memorial, where they offer free performances each summer, and this season they will play out one of Shakespeare’s classic tragedies, Hamlet, with a modern flair.

For Artistic Director Bob Colonna, the most important aspect of the performance is ensuring that the audience both understands and enjoys the story. “I’d like it if the audience is curious and having fun,” he says. “I want to keep it very much alive and moving.” From the outset, he plans the piece with the viewers in mind, which often means making significant changes to the original text.

“I’m more concerned with the audience than with scholarship,” says Colonna. “I want to get that story told, and sometimes, you really have to work at that.” To accomplish this, he focuses on clarity – making sure that the characters and words are understood. This can be especially challenging in the outdoor setting, where audiences are often far away from the action. To combat these issues, he comes up with innovative ideas like sourcing some actual Wittenberg University shirts to costume Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern as students, making their characters more easily identifiable for the audience.

His vision is grounded in both his own opinions about Shakespeare’s work and lessons learned from past productions. “We’ve learned a lot over the years, so now we do the shows in contemporary clothes and set them in a nice place in Providence,” he explains. “And I’ve discovered the ultimate Shakespeare prop – the cell phone.” For Colonna, using cell phones solves many Shakespearean problems and plot holes while also adding a bit of modern humor to the piece. In Hamlet, audiences can look forward to watching Gertrude cross the stage with a phone in her hand, reading off
Ophelia’s fate.

Many of Colonna’s changes have to do with Ophelia’s character, as he gives her more stage time and presence. “I’m thinking of the play as “Hamlet and Ophelia” because she is very central to his life and I think it costs him to be rotten to her,” he says. “Our company has gotten really strong, and we have a great Hamlet and a great Ophelia.”

Colonna is also very excited to welcome Michael Grando, an internationally known mime artist, who will pantomime Hamlet’s famous play-within-a-play. “I’ve seen his performances and he is absolutely brilliant,” Colonna says.

Overall, Colonna is excited – and a bit nervous – to bring such a big show to the outdoors. “It’s a very complicated story that requires a lot of work, but I want people to leave saying, ‘That play is good!’” he explains. “This is not a melancholy, brooding Hamlet – this is a feisty, out-of-control Hamlet.”

The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater
Roger Williams National Memorial
282 North Main Street

Upcoming Performances
Thursday through Sunday: 8pm, May 31–June 17