BRATTLEBORO -- If there’s something rotten in Denmark these days, it’s probably not "Hamlet."
Theater companies can’t seem to resist the temptation to lift Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy out of time and place and land it Š almost anywhere. Set it in a 19th century slum or a 20th century suburb? Sure. How about the corporate world? And Hamlet himself has been played as Andy Warhol, Edward Snowden and a café maitre d’. There are versions in modern dress and modern language. Bedlam Theater won rave reviews last year for an edgy four-person version based on street culture with its characters in sneakers. There’s a 15-minute version and a musical romantic comedy version. There’s even been a production translated into and performed in Klingon.
All this has been done in the admirable spirit of honoring "Hamlet’s" relevance and timelessness. Point taken, but there’s something to be said for letting the play be, or not to be, on its own merits, in traditional costume and style.
On Thursday, Feb. 20, Brattleboro audiences will have a chance to see "Hamlet" done that way at 7 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre. Presented by Kingdom County Productions and Marlboro College, the production came about thanks to an artistic collaboration between two of America’s leading theater troupes, The Acting Company and The Guthrie Theater.
As part of a mission to bring classic theater to audiences who might not have access to it otherwise, the troupe will also present a free, fully staged "Hamlet" at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 20 at the Latchis.
What audiences will see is the real deal -- "Hamlet" in Denmark, in Elizabethan era costume and with a script that honors Shakespeare’s exquisite language.
"No one wants to do the plays in period anymore. We thought ‘How magical and majestic could it be for it to be set in the period?’" said Director Ian Belknap.
Still, the company hopes it’ll be a "Hamlet" that’s like none that’s ever been done before.
"If we just put up what everyone thinks ‘Hamlet’ should be that would be a pretty hollow experience," explained actor Robert David Grant, who plays Laertes. "I had just come from another production of ‘Hamlet.’ I did feel the need to shed all of my preconceptions of the play, and that was not easy. It’s about approaching something that has this many cultural constraints and approaching it fresh."
So far, the response has been good since the production premiered in Los Angeles last October. Grant said audience members have come up to him after performances and told him this was the first production of "Hamlet" they really understood.
"I think we’ve really stressed the clarity of storytelling, which is not to say we’ve stripped away any of the emotional depth of it," said Grant. "This production embraces all the contradictions in Shakespeare’s play. It has as much humor as it has tragedy, and it has as much love as it has revenge."
Set in the Kingdom of Denmark, the play dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet exacts for his father’s murder, setting him on a journey seeking personal meaning and coming to grips with his own mortality. It portrays overwhelming grief and rage while exploring themes of danger, revenge and moral corruption.
The path to this new production of "Hamlet" began with almost a year of work on the script. Drawing from many early sources, including the First Folio, Belknap and others at the Acting Company chose a script that preserves the soul of the play and all its memorable language while making cuts to bring the production down to an audience-friendly running time.
The end result, Belknap hopes, is a script that captures the essence of the play -- and that begins with Hamlet himself.
"I think Hamlet is the smartest character Shakespeare ever wrote," said Belknap.
The Latchis performances -- and one on Feb. 18 in St. Johns bury -- represent a homecoming of sorts for Grant, a Vermont native who grew up in the Orange County town of Vershire. He credits growing up here with helping find his path in life.
"For my parents, working in schools and in non-profits, they gave a place of esteem to the arts," said Grant. "Even as impractical a profession as acting was given as much credibility as something that might be steady or lucrative."
Founded in 1972 by the legendary actors John Housemen, the Acting Company has a mission to give young actors the chance to hone their craft by performing classic works of theater. Another part is to take these classic works on the road, introducing audiences nationwide to great works of theater. Acting Company alumni include Kevin Kline, Rainn Wilson, Patti LuPone, David Ogden Stiers, Keith David and countless others. Actors who started with the Minneapolis-based Guthrie Theater include Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Frank Langella.
Tickets for the 7 p.m. performance on Feb. 20 range from $24-$52. For tickets, call 888-757-5559 or visit www.KingdomCounty .org.
The free 10:30 a.m. matinee of "Hamlet" on Feb. 20 is made possible through the sponsorship of the Thomas Thompson Trust, Chroma Technology, Brown Computer, the Brattleboro Retreat, Brattleboro Savings & Loan, Brattleboro Subaru and Ford, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, Goodenough Rubbish Removal and dozens of local families. To support the sponsorship campaign, visit www.crowdrise.com/fundraiser/KingdomCounty.