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One-man show closes Shakespeare Festival

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

As the star of a one-man production, Louis Butelli admits the experience at times feels lonely.

"You miss having scene partners. You miss the warmth and electricity of other actors," Butelli said.

The task, then, lies in finding the partner elsewhere.

"What this requires me to do is establish that relationship with the audience," Butelli said. "So they, in essence, become my scene partner."

Butelli wraps audiences into the "Gravedigger's Tale," an interactive retelling of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." The production closes Virginia Shakespeare Festival's 38th anniversary season.

The New-York based actor has spent much of his career playing the fool.

The Shakespearean fool, that is.

"What I like about them is that they're the only ones empowered to speak truth to power," Butelli said.

Butelli shares this love of Shakespeare's fools and clowns with Robert Richmond, director of "Gravedigger's Tale."

Thus, when Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., commissioned Butelli and Richmond to create a piece, they inevitably chose to retell Hamlet's story through the character of Gravedigger, a clown who appears only in Act 5, Scene 1, of the play.

It's a character who, as Butelli described, doesn't act as you expect a gravedigger would.

The play was commissioned to accompany Folger's 2016 First Folio tour, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death in bringing the First Folio, the first nearly complete collection of Shakespeare's plays, to all 50 states.

"Gravedigger's Tale," which premiered in February, feels at once foreign and familiar. Shakespeare's words remain the same, the story unchanged. But the Gravedigger provides voice, and the audience direction.

Butelli hands bones to audience members, each bone tagged with a question. The audience presents these questions to Gravedigger who then answers with text from Hamlet.

For example, if asked a question about Ophelia, Butelli said, the Gravedigger might answer with Gertrude's willow speech.

Following a performance in D.C., Butelli noticed on Twitter a woman who shared that her 10-year-old niece, after seeing "Gravedigger's Tale," wanted to read "Hamlet."

Butelli finds the play accessible for two reasons: how it's cut, and also how it's spoken.

"If you speak it with clarity and with technique, it becomes more conversational and less rhetorical and oratorical," he said. "Less like old English and more just somebody talking to you. And then that kind of helps the audience to hear it."

Performances of "Gravedigger's Tale" take place in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall's 140-seat studio theatre, with the audience on three sides of the stage.

And despite Butelli's admission of loneliness, it seems he has found in audiences a warmth and energy that defines the whole experience.

"It's not that I am a performer standing apart from them, we're very much engaged together," Butelli said.

"And I think that's what good theater does, is it puts everybody under the same roof," he continued. "We're all breathing the same air. You're in each other's company. It creates warmth. It creates presence. It creates community."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Want to go?

When: 7:30 p.m., July 27-30 and Aug. 2-6; 2 p.m., July 31 and Aug. 7 (Bard's Market opens one hour before each show in the Dodge Room)

Where: Studio Theatre, Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall

Tickets: $10-$20

Available by phone at 757-221-2674, online at wm.edu/boxoffice or in person at PBK Hall Box Office, 601 Jamestown Road. Box office hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday and noon-2 p.m., Sunday.

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