"Audiences love it when there is a train wreck," Henley Street Theatre Company's artistic director, James Ricks, says of his annual Bootleg Shakespeare production. It's all part of the crazy energy of the event, in which selected actors converge on a specific day with lines memorized, costumes chosen and props in hand, go through one practice run and then perform that night in front of an audience. This year's show is "Hamlet," in which Ricks will reprise the title role he played 11 years ago at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton.
Ricks has never acted in a Henley Street bootleg production, and he's in good company. Some of Richmond's leading actors, such as Audra Honaker and Scott Wichmann, are joining in for the first time along with key management from several local professional theater companies.
"It's been a long time since I've had to memorize words and say them in front of people," says Philip Crosby, managing director of Richmond Triangle Players, who last acted onstage in 1985. "My goal is to wake everybody up," he says, "so this performance could end up somewhere between Oscar Wilde, Terry-Thomas and Bette Midler. We'll just have to see."
Wichmann plays Fortinbras, his first performance since his return from deployment to Afghanistan as a Navy reservist. There he worked with the Army to recycle and dispose of used equipment in an effort to clean up battle space. "It will be my first exposure to this process," he says. "It is scary and interesting to see what the dynamic is and just be a part of that energy."
What Wichmann's talking about is the Elizabethan-style staging that minimizes rehearsals and emphasizes performance. "Actors were given their lines and the cue that indicated when they needed to execute those lines," Ricks says. "So not only were roles learned in isolation from the other actors, but also the rest of the play."
Lack of rehearsal time may have been normal for actors during Shakespeare's time, but modern-day actors are used to practicing their parts. "It is really interesting to see how different actors handle the intensity of this type of staging," Ricks says. "Some thrive on it while others just fall apart."
"I think I'll love it," Honaker says. "It's kind of like how a callback works [in an audition]: You just go out there and do it the best you can right at that time. You don't have time to overthink it."
Past years' bootleg performances sold out in minutes at the previous location, Virginia Rep's theatre at Willow Lawn. Moving to the larger November Theatre, formerly the Empire, will accommodate more people and permit a bigger show — which also maximizes the potential for mishaps. Another plus for Ricks is that the performances tends to show off plays that aren't normally produced, such as "Titus Andronicus" and "Troilus and Cressida." "There's no expectation of what those plays are supposed to be like. Everybody's going to come into 'Hamlet' thinking they know the show," Ricks says. "We want to defy some of the expectation and maintain the bootleg aesthetic, which is very irreverent and kind of all over the place." S
Henley Street Theatre Company's Bootleg Shakespeare production of "Hamlet" takes place at the November Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m. Free, suggested donation $10. Tickets will be released at 6 p.m. Limit two tickets per person, no reservations taken. For information, visit henleystreettheatre.org or call 340-0115.