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A Tale of Two Hamlets

Rhodes and Next Stage offer experimental takes on the melancholy Dane.



Costumer David Jilg was running around adjusting costumes and consulting with director Cookie Ewing at a recent dress rehearsal for the Rhodes College production of Hamlet, which opens this weekend. The show's look is so casually casual and so casually contemporary that, had Ewing and Jilg not been there making last-minute adjustments, an unschooled observer might never have guessed the cast was actually wearing costumes. It's clear from the carefully chosen street clothes and the nearly nonexistent set that a lot of effort has been made to make this production of Hamlet, the most celebrated play in the English language, look positively effortless. But if you ask any of the students who have been in rehearsal since September, they will tell you that the effort has been tremendous.

"We want to address and approach and be available to this audience that has a shrinking attention span and growing apathy," says Anders Reynolds, who is playing the role of Horatio. According to Reynolds, their production, as unconventional as it may be, grew organically as the students developed a personal relationship with Shakespeare's dense and often difficult language -- language that can be intimidating to seasoned actors, let alone students.

"[The soliloquies] aren't hard. I mean, I've always worked on and written songs," says Kyle Hatley, who takes on the daunting role of Hamlet. It's the process of songwriting, converting private, deeply personal thoughts into spoken verse, that has informed Hatley's performance. Audiences expecting a snarling, angst-ridden Hamlet sawing the air with his hands and reciting "To be or not to be" with diction too perfect to be real will be pleasantly surprised to hear those famous words sung, accompanied by Hatley's ringing guitar. The equally famous "What a piece of work is man" speech has also been set to music. Hamlet's play-within-a-play has become a miniature rock opera that is really quite grand.

Since the invention of rock-and-roll (or at least the first installment of MTV's Unplugged), the world has been inundated with images of angry young men, sitting by themselves, banging the crap out of their guitars, and telling us how they feel, whether we want to hear it or not. Given that, this refreshing, uptempo, and sometimes even clownish take on the melancholy Dane seems an obvious choice, as welcome and refreshing as it is overdue. Although the text remains virtually unaltered, the students have succeeded in making this Hamlet seem like a brand-new play.

"It's one thing to say that we have made the play-within-a-play a rock opera," says cast member Richard Pearson. "But this is a rock opera that really rocks."

But Rhodes isn't the only local institution tackling Hamlet this April. Shakespeare's tragedy of revenge will also be appearing on Theatre Memphis' Next Stage, under the direction of Bo List (who also reviews films for the Flyer).

"I'm very excited that [there are two productions of Hamlet] going on," says List, though he admits that hasn't always been the case. "Cookie and I had a conversation some time ago where she told me about the Rhodes [theater] season. That was the same day that I found out I was directing Hamlet [for Theater Memphis]. I asked, 'When does your Hamlet open?' and she said, 'April 10th.' And I said, 'That's interesting. Our friends-and-family preview for Hamlet is April 10th.' There was just silence on the phone as it sunk in."

"Everything I do tends to be the result of some kind of experiment," says List, explaining that his Hamlet will be no exception. "I did some research for a paper on different productions of Hamlet, which led me to the Peter Brook Hamlet of about two years ago. [According to Brook], it's a play that can speak one-on-one with the audience, and it could be very conversational. It could also be done very intimately. It can be pared down to its essence -- to what it says about the human condition. So I got really excited about the idea of doing a Hamlet that didn't have the pageantry. I wanted to see a Hamlet that was about a young man with a problem."

Ewing and List agree that it is difficult not to compare Hamlet's fatalistic cycle of revenge to headline-grabbing events of the day. "The language, which puts into perspective Hamlet's problem as compared to thousands and thousands of people who fight for causes they don't understand because of national honor, gets punched," says List. "Hamlet's problem will hopefully reflect that a culture can have the same kind of revenge issues."

Hamlet is at Theatre Memphis April 11th-27th. Hamlet is at Rhodes College April 10th-27th.

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