For Keanu It's No Holds Bard
Reeves stars as Hamlet in Winnipeg
by John O'Mahony
Hang 10, dude. Actor Keanu Reeves, long famous as Ted, the bodacious Valley-boy airhead, has squeezed his buns into velvet tights to cruise the stage as Hamlet.
And while to be or not to be "excellent" in theater is the star's new quest, audiences at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theater Center in Canada are pleased as punch that the superdude's latest adventure hasn't failed egregiously.
One thing's for sure, though, Reeves and Shakespeare's poetry do not flow as easily as "Speed," the movie that made him a superstar last summer. Some critics say the Bard's iambic pentameter gets the better of the actor.
"Reeves' 'To Be or Not to Be' was atrocious, leaden, bored and boring," said a critic from the Guardian, a London-based newspaper, adding that in the first act, "He gabbled his lines, oblivious to meter, like a learner driver falling on the accelerator."
On the other hand, give Reeves a rapier and . . . Hey, look out, dude, he's shredding!
"But dueling with Laertes, he was high-octane Errol Flynn, a dashing swordsman, and a magnetic stage athlete," the paper continued.
Some critics also complained that the actor's identification with Ted from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" got in the way of his performance. The Bard's line "my excellent good friends," when Hamlet meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, gets titters every night.
But stifle the grin. The London Sunday Times sent a critic to Winnipeg and he raved.
"He quite embodied the innocence, the splendid fury, the animal grace of the leaps and bounds, the emotional violence, that form the Prince of Denmark," Roger Lewis wrote.
And if that wasn't enough, he continued, "He had the sheer virility of Larry Olivier's melancholy Dane plus the Peter Pan-ishness, the little-boy-lost quality, that I remember Mark Rylance bringing to the role."
But while critics were split on their verdicts, nobody's come out of the theater complaining that he or she was bored, according to Riva Harrison, drama critic with the Winnipeg Sun, who called the show "spectacular."
And neither is anyone in the city complaining about having superstar Reeves living in their midst. Why would they? Winnipeg's minus 30-degree winter isn't exactly high tourist season, but visitors from all over the world, including Japan and Europe, are paying big bucks to fly in and see Reeves' Hamlet.
According to local projections, by the time the 29-day sold-out run of the $500,000 show ends on Feb. 4, it will have contributed an extra $3.5 million to the local economy.
Speaking of economics, Reeves turned down an offer of $5.5 million from Warner Pictures and another big deal to work with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino so he could accept this eight-week job in Canada for a union scale rate of less than $2,000 a week.
"He's become really well-liked in the city," said John Dafoe, an editor with the Winnipeg Free Press. "He's very dedicated, he didn't appear with a train of flunkies, and the other actors seem to get along with him quite well."
Harrison adds that Reeves scores five stars for the way he treats his fans.
"He's incredible," she said. "After the opening night he stayed up until about 4 a.m. signing autographs. And every day, he accommodates a constant stream of fans who want to talk to him."
Besides being a one-man tourism booster, Reeves has also done his bit to popularize the Bard of Avon in local schools.
Every year, the Manitoba Theater Center sets aside tickets for schoolkids at four performances of each of the season's plays.
"Usually they can't get spat on," said Morley Walker, the entertainment editor of the Free Press. "This year 3,000 showed up and there was a waiting list of 7,000 more. When tickets went on sale last September, I saw hundreds of schoolteachers camped outside the box-office at 6 in the morning."
But why Winnipeg? Why did a rising million-dollar star brave the vicious weather and a potentially vicious salvo of critical snowballs to play Hamlet way up there on the frozen prairie?
Simple, said Harrison. Reeves is from Toronto and had known Stephen Schipper, the artistic director of the Winnipeg theater, while growing up with him there.
"Schipper was the first one to ask him to play Hamlet," she said. "And that's the reason he came."