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Modernizing a Classic:

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Hamlet: A Dramatic Re-imagining
Browncoat Theatre • 111 Grace St.
5/25-29, 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees, 5 p.m.
Tickets: $5-10 • www.browncoattheatre.com

Richard Davis makes Hamlet a patient at an insane asylum in Guerilla Theatre’s latest Shakespearean classic. Courtesy photo.

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Guerilla theatre, resident company of the Browncoat Pub and Theatre, is currently staging a challenging and contemporary re-imagining of a William Shakespeare classic, “Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.” Richard Davis, Browncoat’s impresario, has adapted the script to a modern-day asylum, the Elsinore hospital for the criminally insane.

This is not the “Hamlet” from high-school English courses. The show does not open on the Battlements of Elsinore Castle, but with each of the characters’ monologues and a tableau of death. Following is the “to be or not to be” soliloquy.

Hamlet (Richard Davis) is a young man suffering from schizophrenia. He hears voices—in this case those from his deceased father. The director of the asylum is Dr. Polonius (Ron Hasson), who is assisted by Laertes (Chase Harrison), along with coworkers Rosencrantz and Guildernstern (Steve Raeburn and Kameron King), the sadistic orderlies in the asylum. Horatio (Nick Smith) is the head of security, while Ophelia (Caroline Counts) is another patient in the ward. The famous scene with the traveling players, known as “the lay within the play” (a technique Shakespeare was partial to and used frequently), has been adapted so Hamlet acts out his delusions with dolls in a therapy scene.

“Hamlet” has inspired adaptations and interpretations many times over. From “Strange Brew,” which set the story in a Canadian brewery, to the “15-Minute Hamlet,” reducing the play to its best known one-liners, to Stoppard’s spin-off “Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead” or even Updike‘s novel, “Gertrude and Claudius,” this story of revenge has captivated audiences for hundreds of years.

Though some Shakespeare sycophants believe the work sacred and an abomination to change its traditional Elizabethan staging, I am not one of them. Because Shakespeare is timeless, with themes pertinent to life today, there is no reason not to modernize the locales and situations with which we identify in our daily lives. The Browncoat is no stranger to updating Shakespeare with contemporary issues. Two years ago they produced “Romeo & Juliet,” with the title characters as a lesbian couple.

Davis’ current adaptation of “Hamlet” is interesting—and not unsuccessful. Purists will notice that much of the language is preserved; however, cut and rearranged, the iambic pentameter has not survived intact. Also, there are instances of modern speak creeping into the script. For example, following his therapy scene, Hamlet congratulates the dolls. “You did a good job!” he says to one.  To another, “You went a little too far, but that’s OK; you were still good.” The modernity of prose works, and brings forth a much-needed laugh so the audience can release tension. Though it is not the language of Shakespeare in rhyme or pattern, it still succeeds.

Hamlet garners the reputation as one of the greatest whiners ever written. He talks endlessly of the many ways he has been wronged; he plots, he plans, he schemes, but he does little. He can’t even get it together with Ophelia, who should be a sure thing because of location alone. Laertes is traditionally seen as his perfect foil: a character of pure action and response in diametric opposition to the thought-trapped Hamlet. In this production, Hamlet is the man of action—driving the action. Laertes, as his doctor, must exercise restraint, must wait, observe and calculate. Harrison’s Laeteres is nuanced and conflicted, angry but bound by Hippocratic oath. Harrison is still a young actor, but one that Wilmington audiences have had an opportunity to see mature for several years.  He produces a solid performance.

Because Claudius’ guilt has been removed from the equation in this production, he and Gertrude are very different from the traditional characters. Claudius is a genuinely sympathetic character—not racked with guilt. He loves his wife and wants her to be happy. He truly wants his stepson to achieve a full recovery. Charlie Robertson makes Claudius a kind and gentle man—someone not used to authority, not hungering for power, just desperate to bring peace to the family he loves dearly.

Ophelia as a mental patient isn’t a stretch for a famous suicide. She is a tough character to make real. Caroline Counts acts in simplicit ways that are heartrending to watch—not restrained by the norms of Elizabethan society or mainstream. After all, when in a mental institution, anything goes! Her scenes with Hamlet pass boundaries of physical intimacy that many are used to seeing in live theatre. They make her reaction and response when she kills herself all the more believable.

Folks looking to introduce their children to Shakespeare should consider taking them to the Shakespeare Youth Company’s “The Tempest” [read more]; Browncoat’s production of “Hamlet” is not G rated. It is hard-hitting and intense, and maybe mis-named since it is such a dramatic re-shaping of  “Hamlet.” Yet, it is an interesting update to pique people’s interest and revisit the original work. It is also what Guerrilla Theatre sets out to do: challenge the boundaries of how we look at theatre.

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