Reimaging ‘Hamlet’ For A New Age And Theater

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The character of Hamlet takes a tremendous amount of energy, breath and focus. He pulls the actor in all directions, from brooding, black Dane to a manic, teasing prince. And Tristan Vaughan—who co-founded the East End-based Round Table Theatre Company with his wife, Morgan—wanted to play the role.“Tristan had been talking about it, a lot, and I knew he would be great at it,” Ms. Vaughan said last week. “And he is.”

Taking a break from rehearsing the Shakespearean classic last Thursday night at LTV Studios in Wainscott—gearing up for the production’s premiere on Friday, November 7, at Guild Hall in East Hampton—the director anxiously rubbed her palms on her pants and smiled.

“It’s always more than what you think it’s going to be, but it’s so satisfying to me,” she continued. “If we don’t do this now, then in 400 years, we won’t be doing this at all. We’ll be doing ‘Honey Boo Boo’ or something. We have to keep plugging away, or else we’re going to be mired in mediocrity. We need to have this on our planet. And you won’t leave feeling stupid, I promise.”

Written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1602, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”—often shortened to “Hamlet”—dramatizes the protagonist’s revenge on his uncle Claudius, who murdered his own brother, King Hamlet, claiming not just the throne, but his brother’s widow, Gertrude, as well.

Notoriously Shakespeare’s longest play, it is said to be among the most powerful, memorable and influential tragedies in English literature, one of the playwright’s most popular works both during his lifetime and centuries after.

“You assume it’s tragic, but there’s all kinds of rich, emotional stuff to pull on,” explained Josh Gladstone, who portrays Polonius, chief counselor to the king, and the Gravedigger. “It’s an action-adventure, it’s a violent story, there’s fighting and battling. There’s sex, there’s mockery, there’s hatred, there’s humor. Hopefully, in the stripped-down, 2½-hour version, you’re going to get the essence and the heart of the play, the full ‘Hamlet’ experience, but you’re not sitting through four hours.”

Aside from cutting two hours and minor characters from the play, Ms. Vaughan has also reimagined the staging. The cast of 10 will enter and exit from all sides of the theater—the vestibule, the center and side aisles, the balcony—enveloping the audience and putting them in the midst of the action.

And no one is wearing tights.

“I get seven costumes as the queen,” grinned Dianne Benson—better known as Dianne B. among gardening circles—in between scenes, describing her more contemporary garb. “I loved being a witch in ‘Macbeth,’ but I like it much better being Gertrude. This is so much different from the rest of my life.”

The four-century-old text draws the audience into Shakespeare’s words and worlds, the experience of verse, the universality of human emotion, and the size and scope of life itself, Mr. Vaughan explained. And they shouldn’t have to fight to understand that.

“It’s our belief that if people leave any of Shakespeare’s plays, within reason, and they don’t understand, it’s our fault,” Mr. Vaughan said. “It has nothing to do with their level of education.”

He paused for a moment, and laughed, “Of course, they have to pay attention.”

The Round Table Theatre Company will open “Hamlet” on Friday, November 7, at 7 p.m. at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Additional stagings will be held on Saturday, November 8, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, November 9, at 2 p.m. Performances will continue through November. Tickets are $25, $23 for members and $15 for age 21 and under. For more information, call (631) 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.

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