Waiting in line at the Union Station Starbucks downtown, Hamlet discusses the ghost of his father with Horatio: “If this spirit come again tonight, I'll speak to it though hell itself should gape and bid me hold my peace. Hi, I'll have a venti caramel macchiato and a spinach breakfast sandwich.”
It's the morning coffee rush and no one knows how — or whether — to react. One young girl points a camera, amused, but the actors soon realize she's just taking a selfie with her frappuccino.
William Rothhaar (Hamlet) and Philip Cass (Horatio) are part of the 20-person flash-mob theater troupe called Salty Shakespeare, bringing pocket-sized Shakespeare to unsuspecting audiences, whether they like it or not.
Since its launch three years ago, Salty Shakespeare has been performing the famous plays all over L.A. with some major 21st-century swagger. From farmers markets to downtown bus stations to crowded elevators, they've been disturbing the peace for 3- to 5-minute scenes before moving on to their next venue.
“I was very enamored of the flash-mob phenomenon that was developing in New York,” says Nancy Linehan Charles, an actress and the artistic director of Salty Shakespeare. “And I just thought no one has ever done that with Shakespeare.”
The company's debut was on the Venice boardwalk (hence the “salty”) but its jurisdiction is unlimited. The group members are wary of asking for permission and believe “it's easier to apologize later,” says Cass, a longtime friend of Charles'.
Salty Shakespeare has become popular in institutional circles as well, receiving an Annenberg Foundation grant and getting hired to flash at board meetings, schools, colleges and art galleries. It even has performed at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica while patrons wait to buy tickets for a regular-length Shakespeare production. One of those is not in the works for Charles, who prefers her Shakespeare short and sweet.
“If a whole revolution was started by 140 characters on Twitter, it's time to condense,” she says. She believes Shakespeare overwrote the hell out of his plays.
“I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was 14 by hearing a minute and half of Hamlet. I had no idea what it meant but I just loved the language so much. I just figured, if we could drop it in here and there, it'll catch somebody and they might look further into it.”
That's the purpose of Salty Shakespeare: to reintroduce and ignite new interest in the plays that were forced down your throat like dry Saltines in high school, but in a fashion that is more modern and not followed by a two-hour lecture.
Among the most enthusiastic fans are children, college students and, especially, the local homeless men and women. “A homeless man, after watching several rehearsals, said to me, 'I just got it! He's in love with her. She's in love with him. And they can't be together because the grown-ups won't let them!' ” Charles says of Romeo and Juliet. “I thought, I can do Shakespeare for Malibu, but I want to do it for this guy.”
The company members are always looking out for crowds of unlikely Shakespeare fans. Actors Sam Hardie and Chrisy Moore, a couple in real life, performed a dynamic Kate and Petruchio in front of an Old Navy store. Baby-faced actor Michael Hanson played a despondent and sort of flirtatious Hamlet across from a Gap Kids in Santa Monica.
Sometimes they perform in likelier places, such as the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale, where the Queen of England, surrounded by some serious security adorned in 16th-century armor, was gracious and receptive when Rothhaar bade her majesty to a nunnery à la Hamlet. (She bade him back for his contact info.)
They were at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire without permission, but taking the risk earned them a possible spot at next year's event.
The language stays the same — just shorter, sometimes in Spanish and occasionally rapped. Which is where 29-year-old East Coast native Devon Glover, the so-called “Sonnet Man” and most recent Salty recruit, comes in. He produces original beats and lyrics to tell the classic tales, performing all over the world, including on The Today Show. Together with Rothhaar, he has written some original rhymes to complement the 16th-century prose, though they have yet to perform together.
Rothhaar, 27, the caramel macchiato–drinking Hamlet, also happens to be Charles' younger son. He's everything you wouldn't associate with a 16th-century playwright in neck ruffles. After his performance at Starbucks, Rothhaar, dressed in a beanie, Mickey Mouse tank top and a diamond nose stud, heads to a group of teenagers waiting at a bus stop on Olvera Street and performs a rendition of the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V — in Spanish. At first the kids do their best to act like this isn't happening, and then they relent and just enjoy the show.
Like his mother, Rothhaar is fearless and charismatic. “One of my mom's most beautiful qualities — and also one that drives me crazy — is that she's so good at jumping without looking,” says Rothhaar, who played an eerily convincing Lee Harvey Oswald in the film version of Bill O'Reilly's book Killing Kennedy. “She doesn't give any regards to consequences.”
One of those consequences was jail. Mother and son were arrested after overstaying their welcome past permit limits at Occupy L.A. downtown in 2011. They weren't there to flash but to “specifically do Shakespeare scenes about greed in high places,” Charles explains. (Even their protest signs were Shakespearean, borrowing lines from Pericles, Prince of Tyre: “I marvel how the fishes live in the sea. / Why as men do a-land: The great ones eat up the little ones.”)
Bored and at a loss for how to pass a 13-hour sentence with 35 alleged felons, Charles surprised her cellmates by performing bits of Emilia, Hamlet, Shylock and Helena. “I got a standing ovation,” she recalls fondly. “I'm very good, but they were so bored that if I'd done the Yellow Pages, they would have stood up and applauded.”
When she's not in jail, Charles is writing, acting and running Salty Shakespeare with the help of her business partners, Linda Wickens and Chris Schoo. Her three-decade acting career in film and television includes appearances in Minority Report, The West Wing, 24 and Seinfeld and a number of stage performances, for which she has earned two Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards. Most recently, she was a guest star in HBO's comedy Getting On. She's a new grandmother, sports a Zen watch that reads “NOW,” is a loyal fan of Eminem, Jay Z and Kanye West, and dreams of casting John Cleese and Tina Fey for a comic flash-mob version of Macbeth.
She has big dreams for Salty Shakespeare — one of which is being able to pay her actors more, because, she says, “Actors do too much for free in this town.”
Still, she adds, “I don't want a building. I don't want an office. I want it to be just as fluid as it is, which is sort of chaotic and unpredictable.”
She's definitely achieved “chaotic and unpredictable.” In Union Station, she takes a seat next to an elderly British tourist in Bermuda shorts reading a guidebook, looks him in the face and shrieks the line from Othello, “He called her a whore!” The man politely says, “I'm sorry, I don't know what's going on.” Charles continues the speech, and he just smiles. When she's done, the woman with him says to her, “That was lovely, thank you.”