Heidi Van is founder and producing artistic director of the Fishtank. But her new play, Death, By Shakespeare opened over the weekend not at her usual black box theater at 1715 Wyandotte, but at Greenwood Social Hall, a new arts venue on Kansas City’s Westside.
Van has reorganized her business into "a nomadic theater company" producing works outside of the studio where she has been based for the past seven years.
"It's been exhilarating and inspiring installing the performance at Greenwood. The process has flexed brain muscles in innovation that needed to be worked out — especially since I'm going the nomadic theater company route," said Van, adding that she would continue to operate a rehearsal space and the Aquarium studio space above the Fishtank.
Late last week at the Greenwood Social Hall, meanwhile, work lights hung from the rafters and construction dust was being swept from the floor as Van and five actors prepared for the final dress rehearsal of her new play, which uses the lens of Sylvia Plath to explore the suicides of five female characters in plays by William Shakespeare.
Actor Leah Wilczewski plays Juliet. She said the performance space has been taking shape right before the actors' eyes during rehearsals.
“It was under pure construction when we first started,” said Wilczewski. “We were sitting on blankets because the floor was so dusty. But it’s just turned into something so awesome. It’s like a fairy tale inside of a building.”
Observing carefree younger sisters helped Wilczewski prepare for the role of the doomed Capulet. She said her biggest challenge was the dramatic extremes within the tale of star-crossed lovers.
“If anyone knows anything about Romeo and Juliet, they know it’s an entire roller coaster of a story,” said Wilczewski. “We go from laughing and messing around to utter and complete tragedy, like dripping with it.”
For her role as Julius Caesar's Cleopatra, Meredith Wolfe (pictured at top) said she prepared by studying the powerful Egyptian queen.
“Women feel big things and we have choices in life,” said Wolfe. “In those moments of being vulnerable, there’s still a presentation to all of it so she can be taken seriously as a woman leading a country.”
Van's play attempts to fill in gaps missing from Shakespeare's stories, such as the death of Lady Macbeth, the Scottish noblewoman who urges her husband towards regicide. She is often portrayed as a villain, but Kendra Keller said she wanted to bring more nuance to the role.
“It’s almost an afterthought. The last thing you see is her sleepwalking scene, and then she’s gone. Then, someone brings a message to Macbeth, ‘The queen, my lord, is dead.’ And they don’t even say how she dies,” Keller said.
“I feel like she is very feminine but she’s also very strong and definitely embraces that darker side of who she is as well as the lighter aspects,” said Keller.
Actor Ellyn Calvert said it was a melancholy process finding Ophelia, the Danish noblewoman from Hamlet. After losing both father and fiancé, the despairing Ophelia ends up with a watery grave.
"This young woman who’s essentially been told what to do her whole life: what to wear, when to wear it, go find a husband, sit there and be pretty,” said Calvert. “By the end of everything, it’s just so heartbreaking that she falls into the water and she just doesn’t get up. This pretty dress that they’ve put her in is her end, because it pulls her down and she just doesn’t fight back.”
In Julius Caesar, Brutus' wife Portia kills herself by swallowing fire, or hot coals. Actor Amy Attaway said Portia's words could have been uttered yesterday.
"She actually has this fantastic monologue that could actually be taken from contemporary times," Attaway said with a laugh. "It’s a woman talking to her husband about where he’s been. Trying to get answers."
Beyond suicide, the connection between these five female characters and the troubled American poet Sylvia Plath may not seem obvious. But Attaway said there were elements that stood out for her.
“There is a theme of being discarded that you get in Sylvia Plath poems,” said Attaway. “I really feel Portia from Julius Caesar does feel like she’s been discarded emotionally and physically from her husband in these final days.”
Death, By Shakespeare, 8 p.m. March 13, 15, 16, 17, and 18 at 8 at the Greenwood Social Hall, 1000 West 18th Street, Kansas City, Missouri.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.