Hollywood superstar Keanu Reeves has plucked a Toronto mentor from obscurity to direct his Hamlet.
by Joe Fisher
The slings and arrows Lewis Baumander's professional fortunes have left this veteran Shakespearean director wondering weather the most gripping drama happens offstage.
A telling twist was spliced into Baumander's real-life script almost 12 years ago when he selected an unknown teenage actor named Keanu Reeves to play Mercutio in a local theatre school production of Romeo And Juliet.
The greater theatrical world never witnessed the outcome, but Baumander and North York high school audiences were mightily impressed by the performance of the darkly handsome youth whom the Bard despatched with a rapier thrust midway through the play.
Reeves, for his part, was deeply affected by the guidance he received in that early outing. Which is why, even after achieving movie superstar status south of the border and even after being directed by likes of Kenneth Branagh and Bernardo Bertolucci, he is now grasping the opportunity to reunite with his Toronto mentor and return to a Canadian stage.
Baumander, 42, is mystified as to exactly why he has been called upon to work with Reeves for the first time since the spring of 1983.
"All I can say is that my relationship with Keanu is warm, but very professional. When we met again after all those years at his Toronto hotel, we hugged, looked a little awkward and got down to work. We've only ever shared two or three details about each other's personal lives."
The offer that brought Baumander and Reeves back together was presented by Steven Schipper, artistic director of Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre. Over a year ago, he asked Baumander to name the ideal lead role for the rising star. Baumander responded with three plays - Hamlet, Anton Chekov's The Seagull, and Caligula by Albert Camus, with Hamlet as first choice.
The result is that, in the new year, Baumander will direct Keanu Reeves in Hamlet - the theatrical challenge of a lifetime.
"It's a very exciting job," says Baumander, trying to restrain his emotions. "It's a wonderful opportunity, a gift, to have a year to plan this production with Keanu and one of the finest casts and design teams in the country.
Until their partnership was renewed, Baumander and Reeves had only exchanged occasional phone calls in the intervening decade, a decade that delivered very different destinies for both men.
While Reeves catapulted to fame and fortune starring in films such as Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Little Buddha and Speed, Baumander toiled in relative obscurity directing and producing play after play in North York's Earl Bales Park. There, he was driving force behind the construction of a 1,500-seat amphitheatre, but his energies were sapped by bureaucratic wrangling.
Exhausted, his creative vision spent, he quit as artistic director of the Skylight Theatre in 1992, then tried to establish himself in television by working as staging director on more than 200 episodes of Divorce Court and Marriage Counsellor - a far cry from high drama he had orchestrated to critical acclaim.
Next week, however, the past will be aside as Baumander launches full rehearsals for the most-talked-about Shakespearean event in recent times.
Adding spice to the showpiece, Baumander's wife, Louisa Martin, will play Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. There will be some nude scenes in which the director "explores the Freudian dynamic of the mother-son relationship."
The play is already a sensation. All 22,000 tickets were sold weeks ahead of the Jan 12 opening - a feat never before accomplished by any production since the Manitoba Theatre was founded by John Hirsch in 1958.
Drawn by Reeves' soaring status as the movies' number one heartthrob, people have been scrambling from thousands of miles away to buy subscriptions - no individual seats are sold to non-subscribers - just to be in snowbound Winnipeg to hear their idol utter the immortal lines, "To be, or not to be..."
Theatre-goers from Australia, Britain, Sweden, Germany, Argentina, Taiwan, China, and from over 100 American cities, have paid $65 to $165 for season tickets to see on play out of six. A woman from Riverwood, Australia, has booked four sets of season tickets in the 800-seat theatre so that she can see Hamlet once a week, for a month. Most of all, Hamlet tickets are the choice of wealthy parents seeking a perfect gift for teenage daughters.
Badgered by the world's press, the pressure to succeed, and the general hoopla attending his work-in-progress, Baumander, bemused, shakes his head. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'why is all this happening?'"
It's happening, first and foremost, because Baumander encouraged and inspired Reeves all those years ago. The star-to-be was then a high-school dropout who desperately wanted to act, and act well.
Rose Dubin, director of the Leah Posluns Theatre School then and now, well remembers Reeves showing up late in a "grunge before grunge" outfit - torn jeans, an old jacket and battered runners.
"He blew us away", says Dubin.
"Normally we would not allow students into the school after classes had started, but sometimes a young actor makes you sit up and take notice - and we said 'yes.'"
It was during his second season at the theatre school that Reeves stepped up to play Mercutio. "He was wonderful in the role," Dubin recalls. "Exceptionally talented, charismatic, and extremely energic, he always had an offbeat approach and was very attractive to young women." (Although she has not seen Reeves in 11 years, Dubin still gets calls from "little girls" who wants to meet the actor.)
Baumander recollects that Reeves had a "single-minded passion, almost a need," to play Mercutio. "He was a live wire, he couldn't sit still, yet he was not nervous. There was too much life coursing through his body. His was the most fully realized Mercutio that I - and all who saw that production - have ever seen."
A theatrical agent, there to see another actor in the play, promptly signed up Reeves who soon left for Los Angeles to start making the movies that would lead to Hollywood stardom. Yet for all his success in celluloid, Reeves says he prefers working in the theatre. For him, as well as for Hamlet, "the play's the thing."
He holds dear - and strains to achieve - the goal of crafting a definitive performance onstage. Moreover, Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline, who have both played Hamlet, assure him that, at the age of 29, he is ripe for the role.
With Speed recently a huge box-office success, and with Johnny Mnemonic, Reeves' new movie, due for release this winter, Reeves is definitely not doing Hamlet for the money. According to Baumander, he's exhibiting great courage in taking "the enormous risk of looking publicly into Hamlet's psychic mirror."
This risk is compounded by the fact that most drama critics have never taken Reeves seriously. His portrayal of the dumb but happy Ted in Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure and his rather wooden Don John in Much Ado About Nothing have led many to ask: Is Reeves overreaching himself in even attempting Hamlet? Mock critics openly derided the idea of Keanu Reeves playing Hamlet in a recent sketch on CBC Radio and one can almost feel the media is waiting to cry "I told you so!" should the star falter in the role.
Reeves' supporters - Baumander and Dubin among them - maintain the critics not only have difficulty relating to the star as a mature adult after a clutch of adolescent roles, but also underestimate his lengthy apprenticeship as a Shakespearean actor. Baumander says firmly: "The depth of his passion, curiosity and desire to find where a character is living is far superior to any other actor I've worked with.
"I know that Hamlet is very important to Keanu, that there are feelings in the character that he wants to explore within himself. I also know that he has access, on a very deep level, to all the major speeches and soliloquies. But what he dares on is none of my business."
He adds: "One identifying feature that makes Keanu unique is that he does not seem to have an ability to be false. He can't just chit-chat or make small talk, or hide what he's really feeling."
As interest and anticipation mount, and as glittering Hollywood types are rumoured to be planning a mass exodus for opening night in Winnipeg, Reeves is utterly consumed with the task at hand. Six months ago he was spotted tramping about West Hollywood toting a worn leather notebook containing hand-written notes on Hamlet. Hamlet says it best: "Readiness is all."
In recent weeks, Baumander has been flying to Los Angeles for intensive eat-work-sleep sessions with his leading actor. Sealed away from ringing telephones and prying fans, the two men debated and rehearsed soliloquies into the night.
The clamouring public can't always be avoided, however. Back in March, while filming Johnny Mnemonic in Toronto. Reeves joined Baumander in attending a York University production of Hamlet. Word soon spread that Reeves was in the audience and the actor found himself surrounded by 100 jostling students.
Baumander was moved by Reeves' forbearance. "He was given the opportunity to leave via a back exit, but he chose not to and signed every autograph that was requested and posed for lots of pictures. He made everyone feel real special... and then we left."
Whereas Reeves - who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, of mixed Chinese, Hawaiian and English parentage - reached adolescence wanting to act, Baumander grew up with the goal of being a psychiatrist.
To achieve this aim, he enrolled in a science program at the University of Toronto. While there, he wrote a play for his humanitics course titled One Panacea To Go which staged successfully at Glendon College.
A doyen of the Toronto theatrical community, Mavor Moore, read the play and convinced Baumander to study playwriting at York University. At York, he not only wrote plays, he also directed them and fell in love with the "human dynamics" of directing.
Quiet and thoughtful by nature, Baumander speaks excitedly about his developing Hamlet which will be set in a "Jungian, dream-like, Elizabethan time." He's planning a "supremely moral portrayal" of the Prince of Denmark.
"Hamlet," says Baumander, "has a reputation of being a ditherer, but nothing could be further from the truth. This production is about a courageous young man who dares to stare at his own grief, terror, and rage, and try to reach a moral decision. He's a man who wants to get it right."
Baumander, too, is determined to get it right. He insists that he's not thinking about his own future, that he's focusing all his energy "on helping Keanu be the best Hamlet he can be."
Meanwhile, screenwriter Jeffrey Cohen, who founded the Skylight Theatre with Baumander back in 1979, is rooting for the vindication of his long-time friend and colleague. "Lewis has been dedicated to his craft for close to 20 years. No man is more fully deserving of this opportunity - I wish him all the success in the world."
Certainly, world-wide reaction to this production could either fling the director's career into orbit or exact a stiff professional penalty. While the next act remains a mystery, early indications are that this Hamlet will be delivering Lewis Baumander from his personal theatre of the absurd.