Theater hopes for bloody good time

To use edible blood or blood jam or costume blood — that was the question before Oregon Shakespeare Festival's resident fight director U. Jonathan Toppo as he worked on the last scene in "Hamlet," one of the Bard's deadliest.

"We always ask them, do they have to eat it? Does it get on their clothes?" said Kristen Mun, OSF assistant fight director.

No and no, director Bill Rauch responded, so Toppo and Mun opted for blood jam, a sticky substance easily hidden on stage so injured characters can access it.

They snuck the blood in a crack in the set wall, under a chair and on the tip of a competitive épée sword. "There's a lot of sleight of hand," Toppo said.

But a lot of labor goes into making things look easy — and work right — on stage.

Toppo and Mun are tasked with making sure fight scenes appear deadly realistic, and that none of the actors actually get hurt.

"The actors have to come back the next night," Toppo said. "They have to do this 120 times."

"Hamlet" opens at 8 p.m. today in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. As of Thursday evening, there were still tickets available for the play, which signals the start of OSF's 75th season.

Since preview performances of "Hamlet" started a week ago, Toppo and Mun have been working with the actors to refine small parts of the fight scenes.

Although there are several physical scenes in the play, including Hamlet's scrambles with his love, Ophelia, and his mother, Gertrude, most of Toppo's energy has been focused on the scenes with weapons.

In addition to the épée, Hamlet takes up a pair of scissors and a dagger in parts of the play.

"We never want the audience to be worried about the actor — we want them to be worried about the character," Toppo said.

The scenes are choreographed like a dance. When Toppo and Mun whirl around to demonstrate the moves, they look more like ballet dancers than warriors, despite the épées in their hands.

Toppo, who has been with the festival for 19 seasons, holds a third-degree black belt in aikido. He also frequently acts in shows and will appear this season in "Henry IV, Part One" as Blunt and "Throne of Blood" as General 4 and Quartet 1.

For 14 years, he served as OSF's assistant fight director and fight captain, becoming a fight choreographer in 2007. He has studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and holds a degree from the University of Connecticut.

Before composing the fight scenes in "Hamlet," he sat down with his collection of fight movies for inspiration.

"I'm always looking for things that will spur the imagination," he said. "The best is the fighting that's telling the story."

In December, he met with Rauch and got his "take" of the play. Next, he met with Dan Donohue, who plays Hamlet and battles David DeSantos, playing Laertes, in the closing scene.

"They didn't feel that Hamlet was a very good fighter," Toppo said. "He was OK, he knew his way around it, but he wasn't as proficient as Laertes.

"We decided we would give most of the hard moves, the flashy moves to Laertes and make it seem as though Hamlet's luckily getting out of the way," he said.

Toppo put the ideas down on paper. Making two columns, labeled H and L, for Hamlet and Laertes, he sketched out moves, numbering them in the order they were to be performed.

Then, he and Mun took up the weapons.

Mun interned with Toppo last season and was offered her current position upon graduating from Southern Oregon University last spring with a degree in stage management. An associate instructor with Dueling Arts International, she is helping Toppo teach a stage combat class at SOU this term.

After Toppo has sketched out a possible fight scene, he brings in the actors. They practice "for as long as it takes," adjusting the moves to better suit their characters, he said.

"Every five seconds of fighting equals 30 minutes of rehearsal time," Toppo said. "This (the final fight) is a two- to three-minute fight."

Toppo and Mun are now working to refine fight scenes for "Ruined," which opens in March. This season they also will choreograph fights in "Henry IV, Part One," "Well" and "Twelfth Night."

Meanwhile, they are hoping the fighting goes smoothly — and the actors get properly bloody — on stage tonight during the opening of "Hamlet."

"We give them notes, but at this point, we don't want to tinker too much," Mun said. "You sit there and watch and cross your fingers."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or

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