SOMETHING IS...WELL, NOT ROTTEN but, you know, weird in Winnipeg. In that Manitoba, Canada, city of 652,000, the Collected Works of William Shakespeare has become a hot seller. The fashion rage is $20 black T-shirts emblazoned with the famous admonition of Polonius, "To thine own self be true." The 24-day run of Hamlet at the 789-seat Manitoba Theatre Centre, scheduled to end on Feb. 4, has been sold out for weeks; scalpers are offering $36 tickets for upward of $750—and finding grateful buyers. Elke Schnell, a 38-year-old flight attendant, came all the way from Düsseldorf, Germany, to see the show, without a ticket. She scored one at the last minute. "I was," she says, "desperate." So are the hundreds of teenage girls who stand outside the stage door, even though the temperature can drop to 20° below. Inside, meanwhile, it's downright cozy as sighs and gasps rise nightly from the audience.

The frenzy has very little to do with a melancholy Dane and everything to do with a muscular dude named Keanu Reeves. As a Shakespearean actor, Reeves has, as one 15-year-old fan points out, "a great butt." Yet more serious critics have also been kind. Roger Lewis of London's Sunday Times flew in from Europe and lauded Reeves as "wonderful. He quite embodied the...splendid fury, the animal grace...that form the Prince of Denmark."

"And," adds H.J. Kirchhoff of Toronto's Globe and Mail, "he does look great in tights."

Though he is better known for such movies as Speed and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, this is not Reeves's first brush with the Bard. He is, in fact, a veritable Slacker-on-Avon, having played Trinculo in a Lenox, Mass., production of The Tempest in 1989, and a sullen Don John in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 screen version of Much Ado About Nothing.

Last spring, when Reeves was shooting the futuristic thriller Johnny Mnemonic, he got a call from Lewis Baumander, who had directed him in Romeo and Juliet (Keanu played Mercutio) in the actor's hometown of Toronto 10 years ago. When Baumander offered the chance to play Hamlet, Reeves, who gets $7 million per picture, agreed to take the role for $2,000 a week. Doing Hamlet also meant turning down a chance to work with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in a movie called Heat, which is about to begin shooting in L.A. "It was painful," Reeves said of passing up that part. And yet the play really was the thing. "This seemed a good opportunity for him to get back to the basics," says Baumander, "and out of the spotlight—or so we thought."

Instead, the spotlight has come to Winnipeg, a city seized by what a local bar owner calls Keanu fever. Since the production was announced last summer, the box office has been fielding frantic calls from would-be buyers as far away as Finland and Japan. A woman from Australia bought tickets for eight shows and has moved here for the month. Says ticket seller Michaela Porter: "It's been madness."

Things only got crazier when Reeves arrived in early December to begin rehearsals. "Fans had the place surrounded," says Porter. But Reeves, clad in an oversize blue parka, black cap and scarf, looked pretty much like everyone else in town and slipped in unnoticed. The Winnipeg Free Press launched a Keanu Hotline to record sightings, then abandoned the enterprise. "As it turned out," says entertainment editor Morley Walker, "all he was doing was going to work, going back to his hotel room and occasionally eating in a restaurant."

Though reclusive, Reeves has been good for the local economy The Pocket Bar and Grill has seen a sharp rise in female patrons since Keanu paid a few visits. And the Free Press reported that a riot nearly ensued at a local shopping mall after Reeves left his charge card at a clothing store and the manager had him paged so he could retrieve it. (Reeves sent a friend in his stead.)

If you can find him, though, the star is friendly. After the Jan. 12 opening, he stayed for two hours signing autographs. And though Reeves has said he wants to do "a Hamlet of passion and reason," he is not taking himself too seriously. When he nearly missed an entrance cue one night, he flew to the stage, then mugged to a fellow actor, "So, where were you?"

That kind of attitude has earned him fans among the cast. "Everyone was nervous except Keanu," says Wayne Nicklas, who plays Marcellus. "He was the bravest of the cast, always leading the way." Kenneth Clark, head of the English department at Winnipeg's River East Collegiate high school, offers Reeves another kind of praise. "He has kindled an interest," Clark says. "To a new generation, Keanu has made Shakespeare come alive."

SHELLEY LEVITT
NATASHA STOYNOFF in Winnipeg

  • Contributors:
  • Natasha Stoynoff.