Murders and duels, insanity and intrigue, feasts and funerals at the Castle Elsinore. "Hamlet" has all that and more.
"It's got all the human passions," said Aaron Elmore, who plays Hamlet in the upcoming Theatre in the Rough production, which opens Friday at McPhetres Hall. "It's a great story. It's got ghosts, revenge, duplicitous friends, two love stories, a great fight at the end - all the great set pieces of an engaging drama."
Shakespeare's "Hamlet" debuted in 1601 in London, but the story goes back much further. In the 12th century, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus recounts the legend of Amleth in his history of Denmark.
The story contains the elements of Shakespeare's play. Amleth's father, the king of Denmark, is murdered by Feng, his brother. Feng marries the queen, Gerutha, and her son, Amleth, feigns madness. Feng arranges for a beautiful young woman to discover if Amleth is really crazy. Amleth kills an eavesdropping courtier and berates his mother for marrying her husband's killer. Amleth is sent to England and thwarts an assassination attempt. He returns to Denmark, kills Feng and claims the throne.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Feng becomes Claudius.
"Claudius is a devious guy," said Ed Christian, who plays the scheming king. "But he has a reason for what he does - ambition. Unlike some villains, who are just evil."
Shakespeare added characters and subplots, shifted Hamlet's success to tragedy and developed the story as a study in revenge. Director Katie Jensen of Theatre in the Rough said she chose to focus on the story of Hamlet and his revenge for his father. As written, the play would run more than four hours. Jensen has cut it to about two hours and 45 minutes.
"It's what revenge does, its total destructive power," she said. "There's also the tragedy of Ophelia and her father."
Elmore and Jensen, artistic directors of Theatre in the Rough and the producers of Juneau's "Hamlet," have draped McPhetres Hall in black fabric, with the stage set in the center of the room. The audience will sit on both sides.
"In Shakespeare's time, the actors spoke to the audience, and sometimes they talked back," Jensen said. "That's why I like McPhetres Hall. You guys are right there, just like they were."
"It's a spare set," said Zach Falcon, who is cast as Polonius, father of Ophelia. "Old castles have all these tapestries, but we have the tapestries on the people. It's nice, it keeps your attention on the actors."
The rich costumes are from the Theatre in the Rough collection, and most were sewn by Elmore.
Other cast members are Doniece Gott as Ophelia, Joyce Parry Moore as Queen Gertrude, Ron Clarke as Horatio and Jensen as Laertes, on top of her directing duties.
Jensen draws inspiration for some theatrical elements from Judaic tradition, Zoroastrianism and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The three philosophies share the archetypal characters known as Remiel, Raphael and Azrael.
Andy Ferguson plays Remiel, the spirit of those who rise to revenge. Ani Torgerson is Raphael, a spirit of healing, who also controls time on earth. Ekatrina Oleksa plays Azrael, the spirit who leads the dead from the world of the living. The three also play the traditional Shakespearean roles, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric.
"Hamlet" contains a play within the play. In Jensen's "Hamlet," the performers in a visiting theater troupe double as the spirits - Remiel, Raphael and Azrael - which Jensen uses to highlight and clarify elements of the story. For instance, at Ophelia's funeral the spirits escort her from the land of the living.
The play is a treasure trove of literary one-liners: "The quick and the dead;" "Never a borrower or a lender be;" "Get thee to a nunnery;" "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark;" "What a piece of work is man;" and of course, "To be or not to be." And the list goes on some of the most quoted lines in the English language, said Jensen.
"There's a ton of stuff in this play," said Mike Peterson, the ghost of the dead king and the gravedigger, pointing out line after line in the script. "It's just amazing."
Elmore agreed. "People who don't know where the line came from, know the line, 'To be or not to be,' " he said.
"The line is not about suicide. That's a misconception from the Victorian era," he added. "It's about how you want to live your life - do you want to sit back or are you going to do something? That's a great question. It's a question everybody on the planet has dealt with."
"Hamlet" has been analyzed and dissected by scholars from Sigmund Freud to T.S. Eliot. Is Hamlet a noble man or an everyman? Is he crazy or faking madness? Is the play a masterpiece or is it four acts too long? Why does Hamlet wait so long to avenge his father's death?
Elmore said Hamlet is not procrastinating in his mission of vengeance. His father's ghost charges him to avenge his death, but he can't just murder the king of Denmark, even if he is the prince.
"Hamlet wants to be king," Elmore said. "Just killing the king, that would be treason and murder. So he gets him to admit the crime publicly. So then he goes out to avenge him, but finds him praying, and he can't kill him when he's praying."
Hamlet is not delaying, said Elmore. He's thwarted - up until his final duel with Laertes.
"It's arguably one of three best plays in the English language," Elmore said.
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.