Hamlet at The Hipp: Making Denmark Great Again
A slideshow of family photos flares to life on the wall, our protagonist hunched over his laptop, which displays the same flickering images. These contemporary sights and sounds establish the tone for what the audience is about to watch.
Bryan Mercer, playing Horatio, enters the scene to sing a somber and otherworldly song. He’s joined by the thumping base of a much more modern music. And so begins The Hippodrome’s newest production, a modern interpretation of Hamlet that runs now through May 7.
This is not your average tragedy.
The language is the same, (Although, with a runtime of about two hours, the material has been condensed) but the setting of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays has been updated, fitting the current cultural and political climate.
Guildenstern (Or was it Rosencrantz?) enters with a popped collar and backward baseball cap, the pair taking selfies and vaping like typical frat bros. Claudius, forgoing a crown for a stately suit, looks the part of a current politician. An innovative use of lighting and a glass box to frame both the apparition of Hamlet’s father and Ophelia’s drowning scene mimics a television screen. And the modern inflection of the dialogue makes it feel less alien and breathes more comedic moments into an otherwise pretty depressing tale.
“I modernized it because I think that right now, our country is going through a very hard time about trusting our government, not trusting our government,” said Lauren Warhol Caldwell, the director. “We’re not trying to make a statement on either side, for the right-wing or the left-wing or the democrats or the republicans, but there is corruption.”
Hamlet has always explored the relationship between the personal and the political. It’s a family drama about murder, betrayal and revenge, but the domestic tension it unravels spreads to national politics within the play.
Claudius isn’t just his father’s murderer, he has also become the corrupt leader of a country Hamlet is duty-bound to defend. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark indeed. It emphasizes the correlation between the moral condition of a nation’s leader and the well-being of the state as a whole, a subject many are also contemplating in Trump’s America.
“When the election started happening, I thought… isn’t it interesting how we’re all so against each other? This is not a normal election, no matter what side you’re on; it’s turned us so sourly against each other,” Caldwell said. “And really and truly, Claudius killing his brother and marrying his sister-in-law, and the ghost coming back has done the same thing that the election did; it has turned them all against each other. So what better time to modernize the play, when we’re kind of living in some aspect of that right now.”
In today’s political polarization, every day there’s something new on the news that can be interpreted in two very different ways, depending on a person’s party leanings. It’s a world that has two opposing viewpoints, a theme also explored throughout Hamlet, which is full of conflicting desires and ideals.
“For me, the urgency to tell the story now became more apparent in these times,” said Michael Littig, who gave a contemplative and emotionally powerful performance as Hamlet.
There’s even a scene where Hamlet delivers a speech imploring Gertrude (Sara Morsey) to compare Claudius to her late husband. In the preview, Littig holds up his phone, showing her two pictures: one of President Obama and one of Trump.
I modernized it because I think that right now our country is going through a very hard time about trusting our government, not trusting our government.”
“So much of the politics of the play is cut, they’re gone, so it’s not as political a production as other productions are,” said V C Heidenreich, who plays Claudius and the ghost. “But the result of that is sort of the obverse of what you might expect.”
In this Hamlet, there is no Norwegian Prince Fortinbras or battle in Poland. Instead, by removing specific details betraying the period and location of the source material, the performance allows the audience to fill in the gaps.
“When you strip that away and you just have levels of power on stage, the audience can bring their points of view to it,” Heidenreich said.
The modern setting allows for more than just a fresh interpretation of Shakespeare’s work. It acts as a mirror, reflecting back at the audience themselves and their society.
For Lauren Nordvig, who plays the role of Ophelia, the modernization of the material speaks to the misogyny present in the play and in our society.
“I get a little frustrated in the play that she doesn’t have a voice as a young woman, and I think we’re finding that in these times as well, unfortunately,” Nordvig said. “I’m happy that I get to be a little more sassy and less beatific.”
“You are always telling the same story and you’re using significant chunks of the same text,” Heidenreich, who can’t stand what he calls “museum Shakespeare,” said. “But the world in which it inhabits can change drastically and that’s how the audience has the opportunity to come into it.”
This mirror and more personal connection to the play then force the audience to consider its larger implications. How can the themes and messages of Hamlet relate to modern society and the current political landscape? But each observer will have a different answer, influenced by their political affiliations, moral beliefs, upbringing and any number of other factors.
“We tell the story that we set out to tell and then it’s up to each individual audience member how they react,” Caldwell said.
Discount preview performances are April 12 and 13 at 7 p.m. with tickets priced at $18 or $15 for patrons under 18. The opening night show kicks off the play’s run on Friday, April 14 at 8 p.m. for $45.
Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $30 – $35 for regular admission, $25 for persons under 30 and seniors, and $15 for those under 18.
There will be a $10 Tuesday at the April 18 performance and a Talk Back event with the cast and director following the 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, April 23.
For more information or to purchase tickets, check out The Hippodrome’s website.