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Contemporary Shakespeare: “OT” and “The HAMLET Project”

William Shakespeare may have lived and died centuries ago, but artists continue to find new ways to present his work to contemporary audiences. Here are two projects that work to reinvent the Bard’s classics:

“OT”

British spoken word artist Charlie Dupré released a music video retelling of Othello earlier this month. The piece is part of his ongoing project, “The Stories of Shakey P,” a collection of Shakespeare plays retold as rap songs. “OT” does a good job of breaking down Othello in a succinct, entertaining way, while also making it specific to contemporary British youth. The song also has a chorus reminiscent of Dido’s verses in “Stan”—sad, evocative, and crazy catchy.

hamletprojectnewyork
To drink, or not to drink: That’s not a question.

THE HAMLET PROJECT

The appropriately named Three Day Hangover is making Shakespeare a part of New York City nightlife with its highly energized bar-themed productions of the Bard’s plays. The HAMLET Project, which had a summer run at Harley’s Smokeshack, advertises itself as a “Shakespeare drinking theatrical event.” And boy, does it deliver. Cast members, armed with noisemakers, alert the audience to take shots throughout the show. (One cue guaranteed to kill your sobriety is to take a drink whenever a character says the word “king.”) The cast isn’t spared, either. Whenever a character dies, a bonus game called “Heaven or Hell” ensues, where the audience votes whether a deceased character goes to heaven (a shot of whiskey) or hell (a cup of boxed wine). At the performance I attended, only the actor playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern visited heaven’s gates.

Hamlet and company might drop more f-bombs than Shakespeare ever intended, and die-hard Shakespeare purists may not be pleased with Three Day Hangover’s liberal treatment of the text. Though it was on the irreverent side, many scenes still kept their dramatic gravity. The ghost scenes, in particular, were some of the best I’ve ever seen in a production of Hamlet (the ghost taking on the form of a homeless man notwithstanding).

Their next show, a treatment on Romeo and Juliet titled The R+J Experience: Star-Cross’d Death Match, premieres tonight at Harley’s Smokeshack—and I will definitely be attending. For more information, check out Three Day Hangover’s website.

CHARLES IVES TAKE ME HOME @ Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

A classical symphony and a basketball game may not have much in common, especially when each event is played by an estranged father and his daughter. Their complex relationship is explored in Charles Ives Take Me Home, now playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

The three-character play begins with composer Charles Ives (Henry Stram) introducing us to high school basketball coach Laura Starr (Kate Nowlin) and her father, Julliard-trained violinist John Starr (Drew McVety). Divorced dad John has trouble relating to Laura, who has been interested in basketball since she was a young child. The sports gene has skipped a generation, as John’s father was a sports fiend who didn’t appreciate his son’s love for music. Laura never inherited her dad’s musical passion, but she makes attempts to understand it—dribbling in rhythm to his list of musical terminology, reading about John’s idol Charles Ives, even picking up the violin to see how it feels. Unfortunately, John doesn’t always return that understanding, causing a tension in their relationship that builds until Laura announces that she’s been accepted to a Midwestern college on a basketball scholarship.

The characters often directly address the audience: Charles Ives as an eccentric yet gentle narrator, John as a confessional, and Laura as an emotionally-charged pep talk to her team. They also interact with one another in scenes presented in loose chronological order. The resulting combination shows the dissonance between Laura and John. Dissonance is also a distinguishing feature in Ives’ music, even though Ives saw the harmony in his family as well as in his compositions.

All three actors make a terrific ensemble. Kate Nowlin is athletic and disarmingly captivating as Coach Laura and adorable as the wide-eyed younger incarnation of a girl eager to earn her father’s approval. Drew McVety is charming and oh-so-tragic as music obsessed but emotionally distant John, and Henry Stram brings a warm, engaging presence to Charles Ives (and is the first person I’ve ever seen whose eyes actually twinkle).

The set, designed by Andromache Chalfant, is both compact and beautiful: a playing space lightly furnished and covered in wood paneling, with each character having their own playing space—for violin tuning and layups. (The sound of Laura’s Nikes squeaking on the floorboards is a realistic and fun surprise.) Daniella Topol’s direction is clean and showcases playwright Jessica Dickey’s humorous and cohesive dialogue. There is also some fabulous violin and piano playing by Mr. McVety and Mr. Stram respectively: their scene together, with Charles Ives coaching a young John, is a memorable one.

Despite the angst and misunderstandings, Charles Ives deftly illustrates the poignancy of a father-daughter relationship. One of the play’s final lines is, “Will Laura Starr make it?” As the lights dim, I suspect that both she—and her father—will.

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