Cooperative Performance Milwaukee makes its debut with “Hamlet”

The new theater co-op will offer a different take on Shakespeare's Danish prince at Villa Terrace as its first Milwaukee show.

By - Aug 17th, 2013 04:00 am

CoopHamletIn a theater scene as rich as Milwaukee’s, new theater companies pop up regularly — and just as often disappear.

But there’s something tantalizingly intriguing about the latest group to hang up their shingle in town. Cooperative Performance Milwaukee, created by a band of transplanted University of South Carolina alums, includes scads of local artists with impressive credentials, including current and former members of Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Their vision: running professional theater as a co-op, with “artist members” and “audience members” instead of the conventional subscriber/patron model. They also bring a spectacular array of ambitions, including staging new performance works in movement theater (which has yet to draw mainstream audiences here), bringing high-tech to the stage, and training inspired by “Zen and martial arts.” Interesting, no?

Ironically, this 21st-century company is opening for business with one of the great theatrical chestnuts, Hamlet. But, as you might expect, this won’t be your typical melancholy Dane. “We’re attempting to bring out the text in different ways that will strike more of a chord with contemporary audiences,” said director and CPM founding member Don Russell. “We wanted to honor the verse, but at the same time make sure it flowed easily, that it felt comfortable to the modern ear. And we streamlined: it’s just over half the original text— it motors.”

In Russell’s interpretation, Prince Hamlet is dispossessed by his uncle Claudius in an unfair election. “The main thing I want to focus on is the disenfranchised and the enfranchised: the power struggle of ambition, whether it’s the struggle of one person against the government or the might of the powerful. One of the reasons I cast Catherine [Friesen, another USC emigree] as Hamlet is because she is a petite woman, and she’ll be playing against Mark Corkins, who is a very large presence onstage, so just physically, we have this nice image.”

Don Russell, a recent arrival in Milwaukee from USC, will present a new twist on Hamlet at Villa Terrace.

Don Russell, a recent arrival in Milwaukee from USC, will present a new twist on Hamlet at Villa Terrace.

But the poor prince’s difficulties don’t end there. As a “woman who identifies with the male gender in a male-dominated society,” on top of the character’s usual problems, Friesen’s Hamlet has to struggle with sexism: Claudius can’t accept the idea of a female king, while Polonius objects to the same-sex love between Hamlet and his daughter, Ophelia. Needless to say, this stew of conflicts might tip the traditional question of Hamlet’s madness, real or feigned, towards the “real” side. “The more Catherine dug into the solliloquies,” said Russell, “and the self-loathing Hamlet has, the conflicts within his decision-making and the way she views the world, she believes that Hamlet is honestly slipping into mental instability. So she’s been leading down that road, and I’m very impressed with the work so far.” Among other actors familiar to Milwaukee audiences will be Cheryl Roloff as Queen Gertrude, Kat Wodtke as Ophelia, and Mack Heath as Polonius.

With assistance from co-founder Neal Easterling, Russel will apply CPM’s Asian-inspired physical training to the role of the ghost, which three actors play in this rendition. “They’ll move through the space in a different world.” He said. “ Neal works with the idea of changing time, and finding a rhythm of time we can translate into music for movement. There’s a question Hamlet has: whether this ghost is an honest ghost or a devil in disguise, a demon playing a trick—or is this truly his father requesting revenge? I don’t want to give away too much about our production, but we’ve made a choice on that.”

Catherine Friesen will play Hamlet opposite a physically imposing

Catherine Friesen will play Hamlet opposite a physically imposing Mark Corkins (Claudius, not pictured).

All this, and sword-fighting too. Will these young artists be able to successfully juggle all this thematic material within the strictures of a great classic play? It’s a very distinctive take, and at best, it will be fast-moving and dramatically rich, with something for Shakespeare fans and newbies alike. The performance will take place entirely outdoors, in three different environments in and around the Villa Terrace.

Hamlet will run August 19-23 and 26-30, 7:30 pm,  at Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum. Tickets are $15, and may be purchased by calling Ann at 414-271-3656 ext. 5, or at

Categories: Theater

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