New York City actor Louis Butelli performed a one-man show in the Tempest Theater Sunday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. Commissioned by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Butelli and his colleagues wrote the show entitled “The Gravedigger’s Tale” to travel with the First Folio! exhibit currently at Elizabethtown College.
“The Gravedigger’s Tale,” featuring Butelli as the gravedigger, tells the story of “Hamlet” from the gravedigger’s perspective using comedy and audience participation. The gravedigger is a relatively small role in “Hamlet” but was one of the characters who did not die in the end and was responsible for those that did.
“We were toying around with a bunch of different ideas, and we really wanted to create something that would be engaging but still get the story across and thought: ‘The gravedigger isn’t dead! Why not have him tell the story as if he were explaining what happened to the King?’” Butelli said.
The performance began with the gravedigger entering a dimly lit stage with nothing but a large, antique chest in the center. He showcased his comedic style from the start by trying to move the chest, but he was unable to because it was too heavy. Frustrated, he began emptying the chest, pulling out a large wooden tray, a book and a sandwich.
He sat on the chest, thumbing through the book and reading the first lines of various Shakespearean plays. Finding one that he seemed to like, the gravedigger began reading the beginning of “Hamlet” with the famous lines, “To be, or not to be,” while eating his sandwich.
Deeper into the opening monologue, the gravedigger walked up to an audience member in the front row and gave him his sandwich, which stayed with the audience member until the end of the show.
He also began to engage the audience more by pausing at the questions in the monologue, gesturing for audience members to answer the questions. Because they would not know the answers without having memorized “Hamlet,” the gravedigger appeared to become frustrated that the audience could not answer his questions, again showing his comedic style.
At another point in the performance, the gravedigger had the audience create sound effects to aid in his recitation of “Hamlet” and to set the scene. He also began to take out bones from the chest, which had cards on them with questions.
The gravedigger went up to multiple audience members with the different bones and had them read the questions to further his monologue. When an audience member did not read the question loud enough, he again became comically frustrated and turned to another audience member to read the question even louder.
The gravedigger also pulled an audience member onto the stage to act out a scene with him, where he ended up pretending to poison and kill the audience member as a part of the monologue he was reciting. Finally, the show ended with the gravedigger pulling a ukulele out of the chest and singing a song from “Hamlet.”
“This performance was a really interesting portrayal of ‘Hamlet’ and the theatre in general,” junior Ari Retzer of Shippensburg University said.”I really loved how [Butelli] included the audience and that the lights were dimmed just enough that you could see the audience, but [Butelli] was still featured.”
Etown first-year Aileen Burke had a similar reaction. “It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity to have the First Folio here at Etown, but this show in particular was really interesting. [Butelli] was able to take something that everyone knows and reconstruct it into something new, and I thought it was a great portrayal and really funny.”
After the show, Butelli held an acting workshop for theatre students entitled “Shakespearean Clowning,” where he worked with 10 Etown students on Shakepeare’s different comedic approaches to his characters, both physical and verbal.
“Louis made me realize something that I had known, but not truly taken to heart, that fear of being the actor often gets in the way of being the character,” junior theatre major Amber Mangabat said. “Especially in clowning, the character may want to do something, but the actor thinks such an action is ridiculous and holds back. If we just let that action happen, [which] he referred to it as ‘letting your inner monkey take over,’ then the scene improves, and the audience is that much more entertained.”
The First Folio! exhibit will remain on campus until Sunday, Dec. 4, accompanied by various Pop-up Shakespeare performances around Elizabethtown. Performance times and locations are available under Campus Events on the Etown website.