A relaxing end to her senior year was not in the cards for Brenna Nicely '10. The play "Hamletmachine," Nicely's final directorial project at Bowdoin, premieres tonight and will run through the weekend.
Nicely has been involved in theater since high school, but she got her first taste of directing a full-scale theater production last semester when she directed Masque and Gown's production of Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" as an independent study.
Her experience with Rhinoceros prompted her to take on another independent study this semester.
"I decided to pursue a second due both to my growing interest in directing and a feeling that I needed to take on a play which would challenge me in different ways than last semester," said Nicely.
Nicely took the word "challenge" to heart: while Heiner Müller's "Hamletmachine" is based on William Shakespeare's immortal play "Hamlet," it has no central plot, is only eight pages long, and has very little dialogue.
"Although we could discern characters, plot points and a distinguishable and surprisingly simple structure to the story, the heart of the play is its incredibly dense and compressed feeling of frustration," said Nicely.
While these characteristics initially make the play difficult to read and understand, they also allow Müller's work to be open to interpretation.
"It's exciting because it's one of those things you'll never fully understand," said Nicely. "You could simplify it as a 'postmodern theatrical protest', but there's no fun in that, and really it says a lot more. For me, the play is about being pulled in different directions and being stuck in a perpetual cycle of disillusionment, hope and loss."
Nicely was first exposed to "Hamletmachine" while abroad in Berlin.
"I'm one of the lucky ones who got to see it live before reading it," said Nicely. "I didn't get it then, but I was intrigued. After reading it, I 'got' it a little more, and my appreciation for and understanding of the play has been growing ever since."
Nicely wanted to bring "Hamletmachine" back to Bowdoin, but she knew the directing process would not be easy. "How do you perform a play written to subvert theater itself?" said Nicely.
During the audition process, Nicely was able to find three actors that brought the story alive. Along with choreographer Lily Shapiro, Nicely cast the show based on how the actors interacted and worked with each other.
"I was looking for actors who connected with each other and had enough strength and vulnerability to handle the demands of the text," said Nicely. "Since a vast majority of the play is without dialogue, I needed actors who could work together just by being in the same place. It sounds a little crazy, but I needed their energies to match."
The play features Kathleen Lewis '10 as Hamlet, Jillian Eddy '12 as Ophelia, and Kacey Berry '13 as the Chorus. "I didn't plan on casting three women, but they were simply the best three actors to work with each other," said Nicely. "Our commitment and chemistry as an ensemble allowed us to create something that makes a statement."
Rehearsals for such a difficult work like "Hamletmachine" were demanding, but incredibly productive and formative.
The experience forced Nicely to learn how to separate her real life from her artistic life.
"When you do a play like 'Hamletmachine,' it is almost necessary to take moments to laugh at yourself at the end of a rehearsal and to not get too caught up in the world of the play," said Nicely. "I've learned to take my work seriously, but in doing so not to take myself too seriously."
Nicely will carry the lessons she has learned with her after Bowdoin. She will student-teach next spring and plans to apply to graduate school, but because of her experience at Bowdoin, she also plans to continue acting and directing.
"I'd definitely call my involvement in theater at Bowdoin my most exhausting and rewarding experience in my time here."
Nicely's work on "Hamletmachine" and the productions this weekend speak clearly to the intensity of her passion and involvement in Bowdoin's theater community.
The performance will be very different from conventional works of theater and should be one of the most provocative pieces shown on campus this year.
"The scope of the play crosses more disciplinary boundaries than I can count, and something about it seems so very important," said Nicely. "A lot of people really love this play, and a lot of people really hate this play. Either way, I can tell that people are excited to see it."
"Hamletmachine" will run tonight and tomorrow, in Memorial 108.
There will be two showings: one beginning at 7 p.m. and one beginning at 9 p.m. The show is free, but seating is limited.