Westmont Magazine So Excellent a Play
For 15 years, Professor John Blondell has staged imaginative and cutting-edge productions of classic plays.
“I’m fascinated by the classics, and I look for ways to play them as wholly contemporary,” he explains. “I don’t see them as museum pieces, but as full of contemporary meaning. Using modern performance practices makes them live today and gives them an urgent meaning.
“Westmont has allowed me tremendous freedom to explore material in this way,” John adds. “People assume that I’m constrained by teaching at a Christian college, but the reality is the opposite. I have more freedom than I can imagine anywhere else.”
In addition to teaching theatre arts, John directs Santa Barbara-based Lit Moon Theatre Company, which he founded in 1991 to focus on alternative theater. The ensemble has presented many well-received productions, including a 70-minute version of “Hamlet,” which debuted in 2001.
In June, the company took “Hamlet” to the Montreal Fringe Festival, where it won the Centaur Award, the first prize for drama. The honor includes an invitation to play at Montreal’s major English-language theater. In September, the Montreal English Critics Circle Awards named “Hamlet” first runner-up in the best visiting production category.
Describing the show as “smartly conceived” and “well rehearsed,” Montreal critic Matt Radz wrote in the June 16 Montreal Gazette, “I hope to see another show as original and fully realized as this ‘Hamlet’ at this year’s Fringe, but I am not betting on it.” In his theater column June 21, Radz called the show “just plain brilliant.”
John’s vision for Hamlet began in 2000 when his advanced acting class produced a short version of Shakespeare’s classic. Asking only that they not do a spoof, John told the students to experiment with the play. In the end, they performed on an empty stage, wearing jeans and black turtle-necks and using a piece of chalk to draw scenery and write lines from the play.
Intrigued with this approach, John decided to do a Lit Moon production.
“I wanted to stage how “Hamlet” exists in our cultural memory,” John says. “Even people who haven’t read the play know something about it.”
While John retained many familiar passages in the production, Hamlet never finishes the “To be or not to be,” speech; he keeps getting interrupted.
“I wanted to undercut audience expectations,” John explains.
Milon Kalis, a designer from Prague, created a compelling set: a 16-foot by 10-foot sheet of butcher paper on an otherwise empty stage. The paper begins as blank and pristine, but as the action proceeds, the actors cut doors and windows in it and write text all over it. By the end of the play, it becomes a tattered mess, like the lives of the characters.
John met Kalis on a trip to Prague, when he visited the designer’s studio and signed the guest book. After a lengthy e-mail correspondence, the two men decided to collaborate on “Hamlet” and “Tartuffe,” which premiered at the 2003 Lit Moon World Theater Festival in Santa Barbara in October.
Santa Barbara audiences had a chance to see “Hamlet” again during Lit Moon’s festival, and the production will travel to Poland in 2004.