You'd expect an actor with the Long Beach Shakespeare Co. to declare that “Denmark’s a prison,” as Hamlet does to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
But Saturday night, the company will consider the phenomenon of unjust imprisonment – and worse – in today’s United States, as it opens its production of “The Exonerated,” the documentary-drama by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen that’s culled from interviews they did with former Death Row inmates whose wrongful convictions had been overturned.
Taking on established contemporary plays — “The Exonerated” has been done across the land, including its 2002 premiere at the Actor's Gang — is a new tack for Long Beach Shakespeare, which began in 1990 under the name Bard-in-the-Yard. Since 2005 the classical company occasionally has produced new works by local playwrights, but “The Exonerated” is a first step toward making well-known contemporary plays a regular part of the mix.
Denis McCourt, who became co-artistic director last year, joining longtime leader Helen Borgers, says the aim is four contemporary productions a year, and that he’ll be looking to cull them from the ranks of “Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning plays that speak to minority voices or the underserved.” In the summer, when the company does free outdoor productions of Shakespearean plays, McCourt will be looking to add a musical to the mix.
“The Exonerated” is being done in a 99-seat house inside the Expo Furniture Building at 4321 Atlantic Ave., a huge old warehouse that the city of Long Beach acquired and is making available for arts groups. McCourt, who moved to Long Beach after earning his master’s degree in acting in 2008 from the University of Florida at Gainesville, said that the cement-block construction and bars on the windows should add something to his staging of the play. The California Innocence Project, which enlists law students to help free wrongly convicted inmates, will have a representative on hand for a talk-back after Saturday’s performance.