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April 20, 2012 | 1:51 p.m. CST
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Marcellus quips ominously in the first act of Hamlet. Something may be rotten in Denmark, but the MU theatre department’s production of the Shakespearean classic is as fresh as can be.
The lights come up to an empty set of crisscrossing wood and metal towers, like a building half-constructed, now relying on scaffolding to keep it from falling. A voice comes over the sound system, but rather than a boring voice instructing the audience to turn off cell phones and refrain from videography, rhyming couplets reminiscent of Shakespeare proclaim, “Let no food or beverage defile this place. And no talking; it is such a disgrace!”
WHERE: Rhynsburger Theatre
WHEN: April 19-21 and April 26-28 at 7:30 p.m. and April 29 at 2 p.m.
COST: General public $10 and faculty, staff, student and seniors $8
Toto, I don’t think we’re in Denmark anymore.
Drawing inspiration from the time in which the story of Hamlet is originally set—the late medieval period—director Kevin Brown noticed parallels between our current era and the era of decline of the Roman Empire. Hamlet takes place in a society that has seen the gradual decay of one of the most powerful regimes in history due to over-militarization and the rejection of education and intellect. Sound familiar? Brown has taken Hamlet and brought it into the year 2400 (ish) when our “Western Empire” might have succumbed to the reckless pursuit of power and modernity.
Brown also chose to cut Shakespeare’s longest play (when performed in it’s entirety, it’s about 5 hours) to just over 2 hours, focusing on the love story, family dynamics and pursuit of revenge. The play now opens on Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, then proceeds directly to the catalyst for much of the action, the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who was murdered by his own brother, Hamlet’s uncle. Oh yeah, then the uncle married Hamlet’s mom. If you were Hamlet, you’d be pissed too.
The ghost of the king is one technical element of the show that really amped-up the feeling of creepiness and unease. Rather than having an actor onstage playing the ghost (as many productions of Hamlet do), the ghost appears as a sometimes-fuzzy video projection on a screen onstage. The audience sees the ghost from a variety of angles, with the close up face shots so intense that at times, they are truly terrifying.
Peter Smith, the same actor who plays the ghost also plays his brother, King Claudius. Although he is only a senior in college, he brings a maturity to his role that makes him entirely convincing as the aged leader of a country. Grant Watkins as Polonius also has such a mastery of his character that he is more believable as a 50-year-old man than a twenty-something student.
What sets this production apart from other collegiate renditions of Shakespeare is the obvious mastery of Elizabethan language that the students bring to the stage. They manage to find every instance of humor and sarcasm written into the play by the clever Bard and play it up to the delight of the audience. Hamlet, played by Brian Scanlan is no longer the brooding, desperate character made famous in this era by Kenneth Branagh or Mel Gibson; he’s pithy and clever and quick (sometimes too quick) with a witty comeback to his critics.
Watkins, in particular, finds every nuance written into the Shakespearean dialect and performs it in a way that makes his words as simple to understand as if he were speaking modern English. During the show, a little old lady in the audience was overheard proclaiming, “He’s one good actor, that Ophelia’s father!”
Although it’s difficult to condone talking during a play, statements like that sum up the most impressive aspect of the show. The set is intricate, yet unobtrusive, the costumes reflect the anachronisms inherent in the updated setting, and the overall atmosphere of the play is indeed one of foreboding and decay, but it’s the acting that makes all the technical elements believable. Bringing words written over 400 years ago into the future in a way that they are not only comprehensible, but also dynamic, is no easy feat, but this talented group of actors manages to do just that.
Read our in-depth look at the costume, sets and lighting of this production, from this week's Vox.