'Hamlet' On An Elevator? The Bard Gets A New Venue

Wearing suits and somewhat harried expressions, veteran actors Michael Rothhaar and Tony Pasqualini blend right in with the lunch crowd of this Los Angeles office building.

As they head into the packed elevator, Rothhaar and Pasqualini jockey for a spot in the back. When the doors close, that's their cue.

"Lord, I think I saw him yesternight," Pasqualini says.

"Saw? Who?" Rothhaar replies.

"Lord, the king your father."

"The king, my father!"

"A figure like your father, armed at all points."

It's hard to tell if anyone recognizes this as a scene from Hamlet. The elevator audience stares straight ahead or concentrates on the changing floor numbers. Some fumble with their phones.

The Audience Reaction

Rothhaar and Pasqualini are part of Salty Shakespeare, a California theater group dedicated to bringing Shakespeare to public spaces in a way that penetrates the electronic wall that often surrounds us. The group has performed on Venice Beach and currently has plans to take Romeo and Juliet to a shopping mall.

Back on the elevator, once the doors open, people move quickly. Not all of them realize that they've just witnessed a performance.

"I thought they were practicing for their night job ... as actors," says Finley Moll. "It's L.A."

Moll took the Elizabethan moment all in stride, but Amanda Dorinson-Greenfield was a bit confused.

"Were they actually talking about the Bible in an elevator in the California Mart?" she says.

Helen Kaufmann says she recognized the Shakespeare dialogue by the third floor, but stuck to elevator etiquette.

"If they were having a lovers' quarrel, people would be silent as well," she says, "but there's something kind of cool about hearing Shakespeare when you least expect it."

That's what actress and director Nancy Linehan Charles had in mind when she formed Salty Shakespeare.

"I have been trying to find ways my whole life to make Shakespeare accessible to people," she says.

'Awesome The Whole Ride Down'

Despite all the distractions, including a cell phone call and the inattention of their audience (an actor's nightmare), actors Pasqualini and Rothhaar — Horatio and Hamlet, respectively — don't miss a beat.

"It's like, 'Who's talking? What are they talking about? Oh, should I pay attention? Maybe not. Oh, his father's dead,' " Rothhaar says, laughing.

It only took Pamela Switzler three floors to catch on.

"I was like, they're doing Shakespeare," she says. "It was awesome the whole ride down ... Actually, when we were done and the doors opened, I wanted to clap."

A little applause would have been nice for the actors. The audience always seems to be walking out on them — sometimes in the middle of a scene. But for these actors, it's just another way to bring a little iambic pentameter to unexpected places.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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