onStage Pittsburgh – For all those who believe in destiny, it was preordained that Treasure Treasure was meant to be Quantum Theatre’s Hamlet. “On a whim,” she had randomly returned to the play the night before being asked to audition.
“I had worked on a scene 10 years ago in school,” said Treasure, a Carnegie Mellon grad, “and it was the first time I really thought, ‘Maybe I can have a real go at acting.” — “I had never considered myself an actor. I could sing. That’s what got me through the door. Acting was what ‘other people’ did.”
The next day, the Pittsburgh-based multidisciplinary artist received an email asking her to audition for Quantum’s staging of Hamlet at the Carrie Furnaces.
“She could have read for any part,” said artistic director Karla Boos. “She could have read Ophelia. But she came in reading Hamlet.”
Treasure’s choice was the scene that had so moved her the night before.“The minute Treasure opened her mouth, she was a quintessential Hamlet,” Boos said. “She finds so many resonances of the issues of Hamlet: Being unseen, being not onboard with what has gone on before … there was nobody else.”
The day when the transgender artist began re-reading the Bard’s work about the troubled, troublesome Prince of Denmark, one scene stood out. In “The Closet Scene,” Hamlet finally acts on all that has been roiling inside him – he makes a deadly decision while verbally blasting his mother, Gertrude, for marrying his uncle, the murderer of his father.
Treasure was a child performer in Broadway’s Annie Get Your Gun before her journey brought her through CMU (2008-13). Her credits include Cabaret at Hangar Theatre; This Ain’t No Disco at Atlantic Theater Company; Treasure’s clown, Agnus: the acting teacher with a dream last appeared in a special engagement at University of North Carolina School of the Arts; and five shows for Pittsburgh CLO (2010-13). Her original musical score for Shakespeare’s The Tempest was first produced by Arizona’s Southwest Shakespeare Company in 2022, and her debut EP recording Hypnerotomachia is available on all platforms.
Treasure’s Hamlet reflects who she is today – her Quantum biography includes her leading the cast of 11 while “crossing a personal abyss at a time of political paranoia.”
Actors over the centuries have taken on what for many is Shakespeare’s most popular and daunting role, and made it personal to their experiences. In 2021, the Black actress Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife) played the role as gender-neurtral, “indignant with righteous rage for his murdered father.” Ian McKellen, at age 82, recently reprised the role he had played in his 30s. Pittsburgh-bound performer Suzy Eddie Izzard is preparing a one-woman version of Hamlet for a New York debut in January 2024.
After many weeks of preparation, Treasure and Hamlet’s director, Jeffrey Carpenter, were still discovering nuances and connections during table reads and rehearsals.
Carpenter had met Treasure just weeks before auditions, unaware she was a performer – destiny once again coming into play.
They had connected as artists and about their shared interest in German theater at a chance meeting in the former Downtown home of Bricolage Productions. After Treasure took on the role, they began meeting weekly so they could hit the ground running and ready for an August 4 opening.
For Carpenter, who played King Lear in Quantum’s 2019 epic production at the historic Rankin site, a big question has been about succession: Why isn’t Prince Hamlet installed as king upon the death of his father?
As the play opens, the ghost of Hamlet’s father orders the prince to avenge his death, as a good son and soldier should do.
“There’s something about this deepening process – the play holds its questions deep. It’s all about identity,” Carpenter said. “This mantle we get handed and we have to find out who we are in this world, what it means to be a prince in this world. And why isn’t Hamlet king? That’s where I started.”
Carpenter also spoke of being in the “purgatory” of a play that is done over and over again, and answering the question of why that is the case.
Treasure has answered the question for herself about why Hamlet isn’t king – he doesn’t want it. The roles of son, soldier, prince and heir? Those are roles assigned to Hamlet at birth. In that regard, purgatory takes on a different meaning for Treasure, in her relationship to Hamlet.
“The question is, who sees Hamlet? Trans people, gender non-conforming people, we are in purgatory. We are in between worlds,” she said. “I was assigned a gender at birth that as I live, in my life experience, doesn’t fit anymore. So my soul emerges. During that process of transition, Hamlet is playing this role of man,] son, and prince, which weighs so heavily on him. But who really sees this Hamlet’s soul? Ophelia sees Hamlet. Horatio sees Hamlet …”
It is the people closest to Hamlet – his best friend, the woman who loves him – who see him for who he truly is. And Boos added, “We see it in you. That’s what we go to Shakespeare for. To feel the human soul accessible to us.”
Along on the journey with Treasure are Pittsburgh artists such as Robin Walsh as Gertrude, Sam Turich as Claudius and Saige Smithas Ophelia. Thom Delventhal returns to Pittsburgh as Polonius, after many years in New England. In the 1990s, he played Antony opposite Boos’ Cleopatra, with cast mates including Turich and Carpenter.
Marrying the Bard’s work to the Carrie Furnace site is scenic designer Tony Ferrieri, who staged King Lear for Quantum on two outdoor sites. His design was originally for inside the AC Power House building, but it was moved outdoors during rehearsal (see below).
Frequent Quantum collaborators include costume designer Susan
Tsu, plus lighting designer C. Todd Brown and sound designer Sartje Pickett, who have had to switch gears quickly for an outdoor event.
Treasure previously read for a part in Quantum’s production of The Cherry Orchard, held in an outdoor space beside the Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green.
That experience whet her appetite for working with Quantum.
“I was so impressed with the set how the set played in the space. Bryce Cutler, my classmate at CMU, designed The Cherry Orchard set. It looked as if it had always been there,” she said. ‘To me, the energy of walking into the space was very exciting. When I went back to the Roundhouse recently, and the set wasn’t there, it was surprising, because it all felt so right.”“Even the ways the play resonates within me, I can try to explain, but it’s a constant discovery inside the text.”
That’s the same feeling coursing through Treasure Treasure as she readies what has been described as the ultimate challenge for any actor.
“All of this has felt like it’s aligning in a way I can’t quite explain,” she said. “Even the way the play resonates with me, I can try to explain, but it’s a constant discovery.”
Or perhaps, as Shakespeare puts it in another play, “It’s not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”
TAKING HAMLET OUTDOORS
Scenic designer Ferrieri was fanning himself in drenching heat when we met to discuss his monumental set design for Quantum’s Hamlet. The pieces were in place inside the AC Power House – an airplane-hangar sized building. lined with murals that is hard by the front gate of the Carrie Furnaces complex.
Alas, the match of interior to production was not to be.
It was hot in there that mid-July day, and hotter still the next day, when the actors were in costume for a photo shoot.
For the safety of all involved, the decision was made to move the production outdoors. A flat spot – decidedly not the King Lear set of 2019 – was found and OKed in record time.
Boos, who has edited Shakespeare’s work down for a more contemporary, muscular presentation, said the new site offers easy access and accessibility for patrons. Parting with the indoor space was hard, but harder still was taking down and reassembling an already constructed set and seating bank for 200.
Next came a generator to light the way in the dark. As for the natural light, Boos said the setting sun will be behind the audience, facing the actors. Serving as a backdrop will be a giant, protruding blast furnace of yore.
The set itself resembles a three-pronged claw, or an “m” laid flat, with the open spaces facing the audience. It started as a platform, painted to look like aging metal, with curved staircases at both ends that spill outwardly to ground level. It evolved that a central staircase was added, with slag heaps on either side, between the staircases.
“We wanted it to be monumental like the room, but try to keep the audience close and the actors relatable,” Ferrieri said.
Its size serves the move outdoors as well, amid one of Pittsburgh’s National Historic Landmarks. The Rankin complex holds remnants of the days when Pittsburgh ruled the steel industry. Carrie Furnaces is known near and far not only as a memorial to those days, but also as a “Hollywood on the Mon” backdrop for productions as recent as Showtime’s American Rust. It will soon welcome the region’s first “purpose-built” soundstage alongside the ruins.
For August 2023, the site will be abuzz with some of Shakespeare’s best-known words.
“The thing to me about this site,” Boos said, “is that a lot of Hamlet is about the inability to escape the past and not learn from mistakes. … There’s a power structure in the old regime, and to those who would come along and change it, these people are holding on for dear life. That just seemed so redolent for Carrie Furnace.”