REEVES A SELLOUT IN WINNIPEG:
Ex-Canuck plays Hamlet at Manitoba Theatre Centre
by Martin Morrow
Rehearsals began in Winnipeg this Monday for what is, for better or worse, the most anticipated regional Canadian theatre production of the season.
On Jan. 12, ex-Canuck and Hollywood box-office star Keanu Reeves will make his debut in one of the most demanding -- and certainly the most legendary -- of stage roles when he headlines Manitoba Theatre Centre's new production of Hamlet.
Reeves, whose bomb-squad thriller Speed was one of last summer's biggest movie hits, is playing the Dane for 29 sold-out performances through Feb. 4. And, while both Reeves and MTC have been keeping the publicity in check (no national media interviews, only a few tickets to reviewers) the casting coup has already done wonders for the venerable Winnipeg theatre company.
MTC, which already had a healthy 12,500-plus subscribers last season, has jumped to a grand total of 17,574 this year thanks to Keanu. To put it in a local perspective, that's more than three times as many subscribers as either Theatre Calgary or Alberta Theatre Projects. MTC publicist Blair Cosgrove says about 400 of those subscriptions were sold to Reeves fans outside of Canada, who bought the whole season's package just to see their idol do his Hamlet.
As of late last week, MTC had sold all 22,000 available tickets to the play. "That's the first time in our 37 years" that the company has sold out an entire show in advance, says Cosgrove.
You can be sure many will be flocking to this Hamlet just to see Reeves, and if he were reading the Winnipeg phone directory it wouldn't much matter. And no doubt there will also be a few critics and theatre professionals secretly licking their chops as they wait for the hotshot star to embarrass himself. After all, the 29-year-old Reeves, who grew up in Toronto, once failed an audition for the Stratford Festival.
But, despite the Stratford rejection and his Hollywood success, Reeves has always shown a desire to act Shakespeare. Early in his movie career he was taking time out between comedies such as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to perform in U.S. regional-theatre productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest. On screen, he's played the villainous Don John in Kenneth Branagh's much-praised Much Ado About Nothing and earned critical accolades in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho as a modern-day version of the rebellious Prince Hal.
Besides, even a skilled stage actor with Stratford experience can find himself at sea with Hamlet -- as we discovered last season when Ted Dykstra attempted the melancholy prince for Theatre Calgary. Whether or not Reeves can handle the huge and complex role, he obviously has the dark, brooding qualities associated with it.
MTC artistic director Steven Schipper first encountered Reeves at an audition in the actor's pre-glory days in Toronto and sought him out long before Speed hit the screens. He spent seven months wooing Reeves, who agreed to do Hamlet with the condition that it be directed by his mentor, Lewis Baumander, founder of Toronto's Skylight summer theatre. "Lewis taught him in Toronto in the early '80s and Keanu's always wanted to work with him again," explains Cosgrove.
Speaking of the Manitoba Theatre Centre . . . Nigel Shawn Williams, who conned Calgary theatregoers last season, is preparing to do the same to Winnipeg and Toronto audiences in the new year.
Williams, who starred as the charming young scam-artist in Alberta Theatre Projects' memorable '93 production of Six Degrees of Separation, will be repeating the role at Toronto's Canadian Stage Company in January and Winnipeg's MTC in February. The young Toronto actor joins Fiona Reid and Jim Mezon in this new co-production of John Guare's poignant comedy, being directed by Marti Maraden. It runs Jan. 9-28 at Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre before following the Reeves Hamlet at MTC, Feb. 9-March 4.
It was in Calgary last fall that Williams first played the role of Paul, the poor black kid who smoothly insinuates himself into New York society by pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son. His impressive performance, along with those of co-stars Maureen Thompson and Hardee Lineham, helped make the show the highlight of ATP's 1993-94 season. Hopefully we'll see him back here soon.