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Like a show opening with a band's greatest hit, Tarell Alvin McCraney's radical edit of William Shakespeare's Hamlet begins with the master's most famous phrase of his most famous soliloquy: "To be or not to be."
And off we go, into a 90-minute, one-act version that gets right to the point and never stops — the closest we might have to a Jerry Bruckheimer production of Hamlet. And it makes its regional American premiere this weekend at GableStage.
"We came up with something that is pretty fast, but also condensed all the pivot points that you know of in Hamlet," McCraney says. "It's what we call the action-thriller version of Hamlet."
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"It's a blitzkrieg," adds Edgar Sanchez, who plays Hamlet in the GableStage production. "It feels like an action movie from the beginning. We don't waste time on any other plot line except Hamlet's. There isn't that feeling of delay... There's a feeling of obstacles in front of Hamlet."
McCraney, a 32-year-old graduate of Yale, DePaul, and, before that, Miami's New World School of the Arts, developed his condensed take on Hamlet in 2010 while an artist-in-residence at Warwickshire's Royal Shakespeare Company. Seeking a small-scale, pared-down version that could tour the United Kingdom with ease and efficiency, McCraney and Gregory Doran, artistic director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, decided to explore the fast-paced first quarto, or Q1, draft of Hamlet — an early version of the play, published around 1603, that is more than 1,600 lines shorter than the folio version that is most often produced. But because the first quarto is considered an inferior version, McCraney remixed everything into a new vision for Shakespeare's play that trims the fat while retaining its poetic beauty.
Of course, McCraney is far from the first director to revise Shakespeare into a manageable portion. The Reduced Shakespeare Company in the early '80s famously staged Hamlet in 20 minutes (later truncated to a 43-second production), including lines like "Cut the crap, Hamlet! My biological clock is ticking, and I want babies now!"
McCraney's version, by contrast, is both zippy and serious, and it looks to fall within the ranks of respectable Shakespeare revisions. It is far from sacrosanct to rework, reorient, and remove sections from Shakespeare's plays into different times, places, and durations. Writers and directors do it all the time.
"Every production I've seen of Hamlet was a revision, with the exception of Kenneth Branagh's film," says Joseph Adler, producing artistic director at GableStage. "Every version has been someone's version."
"Hamlet in its entirety is four hours and 45 minutes, but that involves a lot of additional characters and a looming war where you see those characters mount and engage in the tactics of war toward the nation of Denmark," says Jim Randolph, a professor of Shakespearean theater at New World who plays the king in McCraney's production. "And this really streamlines it and keeps those key characters in place."
McCraney, like his version of Hamlet, is something of a perpetual-motion machine. Asked how he keeps up with the demands of his accelerating career, he says simply: "I don't." As soon as Hamlet wraps, he'll fly to Chicago for rehearsals of Head of Passes, a new play he wrote under a commission from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Then, in April, he'll relocate to New York for a production of his play Choir Boy at the Manhattan Theatre Club. He'll spend the summer back in the United Kingdom for his groundbreaking, Haiti-set adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which will enjoy a joint premiere at the Royal Shakespeare, New York's Public Theater, and our own GableStage next season. In addition, McCraney's inventive play The Brothers Size, which was nominated for a Carbonell after its 2011 production at GableStage, has been popping up in regional theater seasons around the country.
"I taught Tarell, along with one of the other actors in the show, Alana Arenas, and I always thought they were very special young people in a place full of very special young people," Randolph says. "And it's great to see how much he has taken to what he seemed to have 15 years ago and nurtured that and allowed it to grow."
For now, though, McCraney is all about the troubled prince of Denmark. After a five-week run at GableStage, his Hamlet adaptation will travel to high schools in Cutler Bay and Liberty City, where it will be performed for 15,000 students — a fact that surely did not go unnoticed when the National Endowment for the Arts awarded GableStage a $10,000 grant for this production.
"It's a shame that a lot of the Shakespeare that we expose our students to is done via just reading," McCraney says. "Reading is great, and we should have Shakespeare in literature classes, but Shakespeare was always meant to be performed. It's great that we'll get to see some of it live."
And as for what the Bard himself would think of McCraney's edit?
"I think Shakespeare would have a lot of other issues to be thinking about if he was alive, considering the fact that most of what we know of his work are guesstimations," McCraney says. "We hope the versions of the plays that we put together are what he wants, but 500 years out, it's hard to know what a playwright would have wanted. I think he'd be excited that the work is still being done."