Director says Hamlet promise will drive Keanu to Winnipeg
by Vit Wagner
If director Lewis Baumander is at all concerned that Keanu Reeves will fail to honor his commitment to star in Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre next January, he isn't letting on.
Baumander, who already has been working one-on-one with Reeves in advance of full-cast rehearsals starting Dec. 12 in Winnipeg, knows that the rumor mill is abuzz with speculation that his young charge might back out.
After all, Reeves agreed to the production before his ascent to mega-stardom in last summer's runaway screen hit, Speed.
The speculation now is that with multi-million dollar offers being thrust before him at every turn, the young star is under extreme pressure to engineer an escape - even if that means disappointing the thousands of fans, some from as far away as Australia, who have purchased subscriptions to the entire MTC season just for the privilege of hearing him utter the immortal lines, "To be or not to be . . ."
"One of the things that people are not banking on here is Keanu's integrity - on two fronts," Baumander asserts.
"One, he made a promise and he'll honor that promise. And secondly, Keanu is not and never has been money motivated.
"So the issue is not other money or movies. He wants to do Hamlet. And he follows his heart. The money will be there later - if he wants it."
If anything, Baumander continues, Reeves is more likely to be scared off by the intense media scrutiny the production is attracting than by the promise of lucre.
Baumander already is fielding phone calls at home from tabloid TV shows such as Hard Copy and he expects the feeding frenzy to intensify when rehearsals begin.
"Occasionally, when I think of the whole wonderland aspect of it, the whole media frenzy about this guy, then I sometimes think: No way he'll do it. It seems all very unreal from that perspective.
"But when I spend time together with him, it's a whole different world, the world of a young actor with a passion and a desire to do Hamlet. And, for whatever reason, a trust in me to do it. And we're going to do it."
The two met a decade ago, when Baumander coached Reeves as Mercutio in a student production of Romeo And Juliet at the Leah Posluns Theatre School in North York.
Reeves - born in Beirut, raised in Toronto and now based in Hollywood - has kept in touch with Baumander over the years.
MTC artistic director Steven Schipper, aware of this association, contacted his old acquiantance Baumander last November and asked him if there were any stage roles that Reeves might be induced to accept. Hamlet immediately came to mind.
The three remained in contact over the next few months and Reeves agreed to take on the production earlier this year when he was filming Johnny Mnemonic, slated for release this winter.
"Certainly, this takes a lot of courage for him," Baumander says of Reeves' decision.
"What does he have to gain? He's a multi-millionaire with his pick of scripts.
"But for him the challenge is that he's at the right age to play Hamlet - 29 - and it's been suggested to him by Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline, who've both played Hamlet, that now is a good time to play Hamlet." Branagh, co-incidentally, directed Reeves' inept performance in the populist screen version of Much Ado About Nothing.
'YEAR TO PREPARE'
"That was three years ago," Baumander advises. "Keanu has been working with a vocal coach for the last year. He's really been working out.
"This is an actor who has taken a whole year to prepare for a role of a lifetime. So I think whatever problems there were in Much Ado will not be present in Hamlet."
Baumander, 42, a former artistic head of North York's Skylight Theatre and a stage director for 15 years, spent a week in September working with Reeves in Winnipeg. Follow-up session are planned for November and early December in Los Angeles.
"Basically," he says, "all of the soliloquies and all of Hamlet's major speeches will have been rehearsed and even staged, prior to the whole company getting together, which makes the rehearsal period of four weeks tolerable."
The production - also featuring Stephen Russell, Robert Benson and Gary Reineke - holds the possibility of vindication for both the director and his star.
Ironically, as Reeves' fortunes have soared in recent years, Baumander has struggled to find employment on the stage since leaving Skylight two years ago and has turned to TV, directing episodes of Divorce Court and Marriage Counsellor.
"I try and keep grounded," Baumander says.
"I must admit that it's sometimes hard not to get giddy with the thing and dream big dreams, but I try not to think about what this means to me.
"My energies are focused on the opportunity to do a production of Hamlet with some of the finest actors and designers in the country and with someone I believe is going to be a credible Hamlet.
"Anyone who is coming to see Keanu fail will be disappointed. Whether it's brilliant or definitive or any of those things, that's in the hands of the gods."
GRAPHIC: 2 photos: KEANU REEVES: "Whatever problems there were in Much Ado will not be present in Hamlet," says screen-star's stage director Lewis Baumander
TORONTO DIRECTOR Baumander is rehearsing Keanu Reeves for title role in Hamlet at Manitoba Theatre Centre next January. "We're going to do it."