It's a well-preserved, 10,000-square-foot Tudor-style manse that stands out among the soulless condos and sterile hospitals immediately surrounding it. Though it might seem novel to us now, renowned Northwest architect Kirtland Cutter designed the house in 1901 so its residents could entertain people. Lumber baron C.D. Stimson and his wife Harriet Overton Stimson were the house's first residents.
"Entertaining people is just what you did at the time," says Cathy Wickwire, operations director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, which is currently headquartered on the second floor of the building. "You did a lot of in-home entertaining for business." This was especially important for Mrs. Stimson, who was a founding member of the Seattle Symphony and "a major benefactor of Cornish School." As a lover of music, she would host special concerts with orchestral musicians who were in town to play at the symphony.
On a recent visit to the house, Wickwire shows me a photograph of two baby bears chilling out on an upstairs balcony. One has its front paws pushing through the rails of the balustrade while the other is sleeping in a corner. Wickwire doesn't know the entire story, but she says one day Mr. Stimson brought the bear cubs home as pets for the kids. His daughter, Dorothy—who also had her own pony and cart, then her own horse, and eventually her own car at 12 years old—would reportedly take the bear cubs on walks around the neighborhood. The task proved difficult. "If they weren't on a leash, they would run up a telephone pole or a tree if they got spooked," Wickwire says.
Eventually the cubs grew too large, and Mr. Stimson sent them off to the Woodland Park Zoo. Dorothy Stimson Bullitt grew up as well, and went on to found King Broadcasting Company. "She had the run of the house, the run of the neighborhood, the run of the city," Wickwire says.
Now, a local theater company called Horse in Motion hopes to carry on the house's tradition of entertaining others. Executive producer Ben Phillips says the whole place feels like it was built for theater—and for Hamlet in particular. Horse in Motion's Hamlet will be an immersive production that runs from April 12 through 29 inside the old mansion.
"Are you kidding me? We get to do Hamlet here?!" Phillips exclaims as he and Wickwire give me a tour. He points out the pocket doors, the lavish rooms, the secret entrances from the servants' quarters (which the company can use as a backstage), and the many architectural features that will allow actors to pop out of nowhere and surprise the audience. All of it gives off a strong sense of the castle of Elsinore, where Shakespeare's tragedy is set, right down to the portraits of the family members who used to live here (first the Stimsons, and then later the Greens), which still hang on the walls.
In contrast with the Stimsons, Joshua and Laura Green, who bought the house in 1915 and lived in it until 1975, were very formal. However, recently discovered documents reveal that the house staff may have been a little less formal. On an old schedule Wickwire found in the house, someone left pointed instructions to the chauffeur. The general sense was: "Thou shalt not consort with the maids."
"You can really feel the history and the ghosts of these people and their wacky family dynamics in concert with Hamlet's wacky family dynamics," Phillips says.
As audience members move through the house, they'll likely notice that the building itself is putting on a performance of its own. In keeping with the style popular among the American nouveau riche at the turn of the 20th century, Cutter designed the place to feel like a tour of the world. "The idea was to take guests on a journey through time," Wickwire explains. "It's like, you're going to go on vacation— to Europe, specifically—in my house! It's all about showing your taste."
The library, for instance, looks like something straight out of Game of Thrones. Two bronze dragons with a chain linking their snouts guard the massive English fireplace in the center of the room, where Phillips says the final sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet will play out. In April, it will be light outside when the play starts and dark when the play ends, so the audience will watch the fateful battle as the blood-orange light of the setting sun bleeds through the window.
The reception room just across the hallway abandons the library's fire and brimstone for the delicate flourishes of French neoclassical design. There, the audience will watch one of the production's Claudiuses fall to his knees and meditate on the nature of right action.
Walking down the stairs to the basement transports you to the Turkish smoking room, which leads to a dark, club-like billiards room.
By the way, "Claudiuses" isn't a typo. This immersive version of Hamlet will feature two different casts running around in the house at the same time. I didn't think you could make Shakespeare's greatest tragedy even more of an existential mind-spiral about the perils and paradoxes of action and inaction than it already is, but director Julia Sears and her crew—composed largely of graduates from the University of Washington's drama school—have found a way to do it.
At the beginning of the show each evening, approximately 40 audience members will gather around the mansion's carriage house, Phillips says. From that vantage, they'll have a clear view of the large patio, which serves as the battlements where Marcellus and Bernardo first spot the ghost of Hamlet's father.
"Who's there?" Bernardo famously asks, setting off one of the play's central questions about the nature of the self.
After that opening scene, the audience will split into two separate groups of 20 people and embark on parallel journeys through the house. Each track will have its own version of every character in the play, and some characters will take on other roles at key scenes when the tracks converge.
For instance, Kevin Lin (who was amazing in Seattle Public Theater's productions of Caught and The World of Extreme Happiness) will play one version of Hamlet, while Jocelyn Maher will play the other Hamlet. When the two tracks ultimately collide at the end, one of the Hamlets will become Laertes, the son of Polonius, whom Hamlet kills earlier in the play.
Splitting the play in two like this gives Sears and her actors the opportunity to emphasize different aspects of each character's personality, introducing new layers and complexities into one of the most (over-)produced plays of all time.
Phillips, who will play one of the Claudiuses, says he imagines audience members from different tracks contrasting and comparing the different Hamlets, Ophelias, and Claudiuses they see, discussing how different contexts change one's views and sympathies of characters' decisions and indecisions.
And the Stimson-Green Mansion itself, he says, plays a huge role in facilitating those conversations. One version of Claudius's post-coronation scene, for instance, takes place in the mansion's grand dining room, which the actors have nicknamed "the war room" for its hostile-looking decor. But the same scene also takes place downstairs in the sultry billiards room.
"The Claudius in the dining room looks like he's running the country—he's the king, he's a politician," Phillips says. "But the Claudius in the billiards room is just hanging out, and he's infatuated with his new wife, Gertrude. The way that Hamlet sees Claudius as having taken over the throne or having taken over his mother changes the way you feel about Hamlet's motivations."
Phillips says the company also plans to use the interior and exterior of the mansion in ways he won't tell me about. "This family is so insular, and looking mainly in," he says. "There is that outside threat of Norway coming, Fortinbras. So we want to play with the fact that we're literally inside this house watching these intricate family dynamics play out, but there will be little reminders throughout the play that the outside world is coming. They're not thinking about the political realm until it's right at their door, but our audience will be."