By Meredith B. Ries
jesus in the shop.jpg
Meredith Ries, a set designer currently in her final year at the Yale School of Drama, is writing a multi-part series about her design process for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory Theater, opening in the spring of 2013. Today, a glimpse into the world of props.

“I don’t have a firm date for Jesus’ arrival,” the props master said a couple of days ago, “but I’m confident it will be soon.”

One of the amazing things about working in theater is that you get to make pronouncements like this. And they mean something. Non-apocalyptic.

The Jesus in question is a plaster sculpture, to be used in the scene where Claudius gives his “O my offense is rank” speech. Essentially, Claudius is attempting to ask God’s forgiveness for killing his brother, unaware that Hamlet is looking on. Hamlet considers killing him then and there, but he thinks better of it: since he’s praying, Claudius might be forgiven and go to heaven. The irony of the scene being that Claudius is so riddled with guilt that he can’t actually pray.

Traditionally, the scene is staged with very little illustration: Claudius delivers the speech alone in an empty room, and Hamlet enters from upstage. Here's a nice example:

Here, in a recent Royal Shakespeare Company production, Claudius, played by Patrick Stewart, is alone in the great hall. Again, not a lot of illustration.

In Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film, Claudius sits in the confessional of a small chapel, with a crucifix on the wall behind him, and Hamlet appears behind the grating. Ethan Hawke's Hamlet poses as a chauffeur while Claudius gives the speech in the back of a limo. Both versions appear here:

We could have done nothing, but we decided to give the scene a little extra significance. I should mention here that there’s a huge amount of debate around whether Hamlet is a “Catholic” play — and whether Shakespeare himself was a secret Catholic. With all of its references to purgatory and ghosts, the world of Denmark has the atmosphere of Catholic superstition. So we went for it.

Good live performance is often about suggesting something without fully fleshing it out: our imagination of what is under the shroud, behind the curtain, or outside the door is way more powerful than anything we can fake. I decided to try flying in a crucifix facing upstage, so that all we see are the backs of Jesus’ arms and the side of his hip. Unlike the background crucifix in the Branagh film, this one plays an active role, giving the actor something to interact with. It is less decorative and more evocative.

Initially, I wanted the crucifix to be eight feet tall, making the figure about life-size. We thought about carving the statue ourselves, but research revealed you can just buy cast statues of Jesus for hanging in your church or home. It also turns out that these are really expensive.

So in budgeting we proposed to buy a fiberglass Jesus ($2,000) and “mount” (read: crucify) him ourselves. Even on a show of this scale, that's an extremely expensive prop. So, I looked into smaller options.

We ended up going with the smaller one, making the whole operation about 5’ 4”. The statue, which cost about $750, came from Religious Supply Center of Davenport, Iowa, in case you need one. We decided to build the cross ourselves so that we could make it as sturdy as it needs to be, and so that it could look exactly as I designed it.

Jesus sketch.jpg

Yesterday, Jesus came.

boxed Jesus.jpg

I am not a Christian, but I have to say that the iconographic power of this object is not lost on me. I feel a little uncomfortable handling him, and I definitely feel weird about having to crucify him. Our lovely props people have a plan for drilling out his hands and feet to mount him, and are respectful of him, but the whole thing is kind of a great lesson in how powerful objects can be. I hope that my discomfort pays off onstage.

Meredith B. Ries has worked in New York City primarily as a props master. Her props credits include The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night (both at the Public Theater / Shakespeare in the Park), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (the Public Theater), An Oresteia (Classic Stage Company), Orpheus X, Chair (Theater for a New Audience), and In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play) (assistant props, Lincoln Center Theater). She has also worked with Second Stage Theater, Elevator Repair Service, and Target Margin Theater. Her portfolio can be found here.

Next: The Biggest Painting You've Ever Seen

Previous: A Final Model, A Final Budget