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Nashville Scene Eternal Youth

How to modernize "Hamlet"

By Lisa A. DuBois

APRIL 12, 1999:  One of Shakespeare's favorite themes is the alienation of the generations--the polarity between a stuffy, anachronistic establishment and those disrespectful, brash young upstarts on the brink of adulthood. This chasm between youth and experience forms the core of Mockingbird Public Theatre's upcoming production of Hamlet, which plays this weekend and next at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

Considered among Shakespeare's most intriguing characters, Hamlet epitomizes rebellious youth at odds with the older generation. The heir to the Danish throne is convinced that grown-ups are generally corrupt, immoral, and greedy. Given recent events that have occurred in his life, Hamlet does have a point. His father, King of Denmark, has died a month earlier. Yet Hamlet's mother Gertrude has already remarried--wedded, no less, to Claudius, the King's brother and, as it turns out, his murderer. Understandably, the young Dane has a problem with that arrangement.

"We are not portraying Hamlet as a young brooding, introspective, philosophic kind of guy, but as a kid who's actively trying to work things out as he moves," explains David Alford, who is co-directing the play and starring in the title role. "At the beginning, Hamlet is pouting. He's not over his father's death, and it becomes worse for him when he realizes that everybody else seems to be over it. So he rebels by continuing to mourn and to insist on being depressed.

"But once Hamlet sees the ghost of his father and learns that his dad was killed by Claudius, he quits brooding and spends the rest of the play struggling to decide what he's going to do."

Mockingbird has brought Hamlet's dilemma up to the present day, dressing him in the style of a modern-day "Goth," complete with black leather pants and chain jewelry. Alford's portrayal of the youth is anxious, hypersensitive, and reactive, verifying the prince's own self-analysis: "I am not splenetive and rash, yet I have in me something dangerous."

To capitalize on the Goth mood, which co-director Rene Copeland says "has sprung full-blown from our imagination," the creative team has underscored the drama with the dark, dissonant tones of contemporary "industrial music."

"The music choices we made are designed to be unsettling, to keep you leaning forward in your seats," Alford says. "This production has certainly been informed by MTV. What's remarkable about MTV is that it never stops moving. We wanted it to have that feel--with sound, fog, and the bandit lights like they use in a touring rock show."

Mockingbird's interpretation of the tragedy, which debuted last season at the Johnson Theater under the aegis of Humanities Outreach in Tennessee, is returning by popular demand to the larger Polk Theater. In addition to four public performances, the production will play to 10,000 students through the H.O.T. program.

The majority of the original cast members are returning, and the show includes some of the city's top talent: Erin Whited as Ophelia; Sam Whited as Polonius; Jill Massie as Gertrude; Byron Brooks as Horatio; Brian Niece as Laertes; Brian Russell as the Player King; Helen Shute-Pettaway as the Player Queen; Chris Strand as Rosencrantz; and Lattie Brown as Guildenstern. In addition, Mark Cabus, one of Nashville's most revered stage actors, has returned from a stint in Los Angeles to appear in the role of Claudius.

Cabus, who teaches a renowned "Shakespeare Without Fear" course and will soon lead a class in "Shakespeare Stage Directions" for TheatreCraft, is passionate about the complexity of the man he is preparing to portray. "I got frustrated because everyone in the critiques I was reading referred to Claudius as 'the evil king.' So, in rehearsals I forbade anyone from referring to me as evil," Cabus says. "It's not very interesting to play him as evil from the outset.

"I think Claudius wants to have a relationship with Hamlet. He has to be pushed pretty far to want to do away with Hamlet. It takes Hamlet killing [Claudius' friend and spy] Polonius."

After Claudius kills Hamlet's father, ascends to the throne, and marries Gertrude, he has everything he set out to gain--if only Hamlet would stop grieving and bugging everybody. Cabus is impressed by Shakespeare's understanding of Claudius' personality--the kind who would kill someone and then resume life as if nothing had happened. Four hundred years later, this same personality type emerges in today's celebrity murder cases. "Shakespeare was very modern in that psychology," Cabus muses. "If you've got enough money, you can can get away with it."

Mockingbird's co-directors are acutely aware that many 20th-century audiences dismiss Shakespeare as irrelevant. Which is why this Hamlet pulsates with music by Nine Inch Nails, why Cabus is taking cues from current headlines, and why Alford's Hamlet is dressed like a Goth.

Alford says, "One of my big mantras--and I keep repeating it'over and over--is that we have to be able to meet high school audiences halfway, or we're going to lose them entirely."


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