'What Fools' looks at Shakespeare from a new angle

Matt Dahlstrom in the role of Hamlet
Interact's Matt Dahlstrom during rehearsals in the role of Hamlet in "What Fools These Mortals Be" at The Theater Lab in Minneapolis.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

Interact Center's theater company, made up of artists with physical and cognitive disabilities, has always embraced challenges. "What Fools These Mortals Be," a celebration of the works of William Shakespeare, may be its most ambitious production yet.

In the play, a young William Shakespeare is part of a theater and comedy troupe called the Rude Mechanicals. Queen Elizabeth believes there's an assassination plot against her, and banishes all fools from her kingdom. Shakespeare — played by beloved Minnesota storyteller Kevin Kling — is forced to flee.

"And so they go to all these different places where Shakespeare sets his plays," Kling said, "and then we see those scenes from those different places around Europe."

Michael Wolfe has been with Interact's theater company for five years, and he has one of the lead roles in "What Fools These Mortals Be."

"It's the most multilayered show that Interact has ever worked on," he said.

Learning Shakespeare has been challenging for him, but he has tricks for reciting the playwright's rhyming couplets. "Sometimes I would sing my script because I figured that by singing my script it's easier to memorize that way," he said.

The show melds classic Shakespeare with the humor of Kevin Kling, who cowrote the show. William Shakespeare goes by Bill Quiverstick. Christopher Marlow is known as "Quincetopher."

"They haven't really landed on their nom de plumes yet," Kling explained. "They're still working on them."

But amidst the humor and joyful enthusiasm of the performers there are moments of revelation. When an actor with Down syndrome recites "to be or not to be, that is the question," Hamlet's soliloquy takes on a whole new meaning.

Kling has been performing with Interact ever since a motorcycle accident left him with a brain injury. Performing with Interact is a magical experience, he said. He recalled an art teacher telling him that with a good sculpture, you want to walk around the other side. It's the same with playing a character, he said.

"Like Richard III," he said. "Which side do you walk around to see his villainy? Do you walk around his royal side — and that's fair — or do you walk around his side with a disability, and then see his world from that side? And when you're seeing a play through Interact, you're seeing it through the world of people who live on the fringes."

Interact performances offer a bridge to a community that's often overlooked, he said.

"What Fools These Mortals Be" is running just as Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts celebrates its 20th anniversary. Artistic Director Jeanne Calvitt said the company is pushing itself in a new direction with Shakespeare.

"It's more words than we usually work with," she said. "My background is in physical theater, so it's a challenge."

But the company has never shied away from a challenge, Calvitt said. Interact has grown dramatically over the past two decades. The actors have performed on a European tour, and traveled to places like Australia and Thailand to be mentors to other artists with disabilities.

"It's all about human potential," she said. "It's a model for what types of things people with disabilities could be doing other than the type of work that they're traditionally doing, which is still a lot of more menial work, more piecework."

And, Kevin Kling added, it's great theater.

"With this company, no two shows will ever be the same," he said. "Something's going to happen." He said Interact is "theater that keeps you on your toes, it's living, it's in the moment. It's just what you want from live theater."

"What Fools These Mortals Be" runs through Dec. 17 at The Lab Theater in Minneapolis. The company celebrates its 20th anniversary Wednesday night.