SAXTONS RIVER — This is a very different Hamlet: shorter, punchier, with sets and clothing from the Mad Men era of the early 1960s.
Director John Hadden and cast debuted their modern version of Hamlet last weekend at Main Street Arts, a collaboration with the Wild Goose Players. The play continues on the weekends, with the last shows on July 15 and 16.
The cast includes some Actor’s Equity players (Jim Nutter as Hamlet, for one) and local talent, Rockingham singer Ali Lubin as Polonia.
Yes, that’s not a typo, Lubin and Hadden have changed Polonius’ sex from male counselor to the king to female counselor to the king — but character still ends up getting killed by Hamlet.
(The production’s original Polonius had to drop out because of the coronavirus.)
This play by William Shakespeare is his most popular, according to Hadden, who lives in Landgrove but spent years with Shakespeare & Co. in the Berkshires. Hadden’s local resume also includes directing stints with New England Youth Theatre and Oldcastle Theatre Co. in Bennington.
He said he decided to go with a more modern setting and costumes to appeal and be more immediate to a modern audience. Actors in Elizabethan costumes were rejected in favor of something more contemporary, he said. He also substantially shortened the play, out of concern for his potential audience. It’s about two-thirds of its original running time of four and a half hours, he said.
Hadden assembled the cast last fall, and the first rehearsal started the bonding process of the small cast, which is a combination of amateurs and professionals.
“We started rehearsals seven months ago, in October, to look at the scenes and get to know each other,” he said.
COVID-19 threw the production some curve balls, as some actors were forced to drop out or miss weeks of rehearsal because of the coronavirus, he said. “We lost our queen for a week, and we lost Hamlet,” he said, only half-joking. The ghost was also lost, he said, so the production went ahead with an invisible ghost. Other modernizations include Horatio, “who is non-binary,” Hadden said.
During a costume check last week, before the play opened, Hadden and his cast were checked under the lights and sound for Act II, and then spot rehearsals of key scenes were held. Sandy Klein of New England Youth Theatre is the production’s costume designer.
The set is minimal, Hadden said. The queen’s bed is represented by two, rather small rectangular gray blocks, which are easily moved. “Let’s play an abstract game,” he said.
Hamlet is college-aged in most productions, but in the Wild Goose production, he is played by a 61-year-old actor. “We are age blind,” said the director.
Hadden, 69, whose favorite Shakespeare play is “Twelfth Night,” was one of the founders of Shakespeare & Co., of Lenox, Mass., and he is the former artistic director of the Hubbard Hall Theater Co. in Cambridge, Mass. From 2017 to 2019, he went on a combination solo show and book tour, promoting his book, “Conversations with a Masked Man: My Father, the CIA and Me.”
Hadden sees parallels from the Danish royal family saga (being threatened and ultimately invaded by Norway, purportedly the army is on its way to Poland) to what is unfolding in the Ukraine with the Russian invasion. In “Hamlet,” the entire royal family, including Hamlet, meets a tragic end, full of misunderstanding, murder and mistakes.
“‘Something is rotten in Denmark,’” is the play’s famous tagline.
“They all get killed in the end,” said Hadden.
The play opened last weekend to “a full house and standing ovations,” Hadden reported. Hamlet will continue for three more weekends at Main Street Arts. Performances on Saturday start at 7 p.m., and on Sundays, the matinee starts at 2 p.m.
For tickets, visit mainstreetarts.org, or call 802 869-2960. There are free or reduced tickets available upon request.