Wiith its plot full of murder, vengeance, intrigue, young lovers, ghosts, madness and hints of incestuous infatuation, William Shakespeare's Hamlet could almost be a summer blockbuster.
"It's got the excitement of two 20-year-old guys jumping at each other with swords, jumping into graves," says Clare Moncrief, who is directing the season opening show for the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. "I don't think Hamlet needs any conceptual gimmicks. The play is so powerful."
The tragedy is one of the Bard's most frequently performed plays, and is known for Prince Hamlet's ponderous "To be or not to be" speech than for the intrigue that turns the drama into a bloodbath. Two of the deceased are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet who are enlisted to spy on him. The relatively minor characters in Hamlet are the subject of Tom Stoppard's 1966 absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (the title is a line from Hamlet).
The Shakespeare Festival opens Hamlet this week and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern opens June 23. The two dramas share the exact same characters, casts and set and they'll run concurrently until July 7.
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's longer dramas, and the two plays' large casts of characters make them a challenge to mount simultaneously. It's only the second time one of the festival's mainstage shows comes from outside the Bard's repertoire (the other was Tennessee Williams' A House Not Meant to Stand).
In directing Hamlet, Moncrief focused on a few literal aspects of the play. While many notable actors have taken on the title role, Hamlet is younger than some casting suggests. He and Ophelia are more likely in their twenties than older.
"The star has to be a visceral young man," Moncrief says. "The couple are a young man and woman moving into adulthood. The words (in the play) are beautiful. But one wants to feel the power and discomfort of their youth — Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia."
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the two main characters are the same age, but their plight is absurd, and existential in a different manner. The work is often compared to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot rather than Shakespeare.
"It's Pozzo and Lucky go to Elsinore (where Hamlet is set)," says director Danny Bowen, who also plays Claudius in both Tulane productions.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern uses the same characters as Hamlet and reenacts some of its scenes, but the show is inverted. While the events of Hamlet are occurring somewhere offstage, Stoppard's play focuses on Hamlet's two messengers and their mission. Prince Hamlet makes only minor appearances in Stoppard's play. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern bumble along, somewhat estranged from the meaning or importance of their duties. They both are easily confused, inclined to debate philosophical points as if they were small talk and brief diversions from their business.
The play shares some of the stage combat flair of Hamlet — the two messengers are captured by pirates. But there's also the comic absurdity of their jumping in and out of Ophelia's grave, which Bowen deploys as a sort of portal.
Bowen says he's waited 30 years to be able to work on co-productions of the shows, and he notes that he met Moncrief — his wife — in a 1978 production of Hamlet at the Contemporary Arts Center. Moncrief starred as Ophelia and he played Rosencrantz. (Their son Brendan Bowen plays Rosencrantz in the Tulane productions.)
In January 2013, the festival will remount Hamlet for an estimated 6,000 students from 60 to 70 schools around the New Orleans area and as far away as Baton Rouge and southern Mississippi. That educational mission helps support the festival, which is not a Tulane University program, but has been supported in kind by the school with the use of facilities and adjunct professorial positions of some festival staff. As the festival continues to adapt to post-Hurricane Katrina changes in funding, it has become more involved with Tulane's academic programs, and in the recent spring semester, festival staff taught a "Shakespeare on the Road" class in which students prepared 45-minute Shakespeare presentations, including performed scenes, to show in area schools.
The Shakespeare Festival season also includes The Shakespearean Jazz Show, which features Shakespearean scenes and sonnets set to live jazz. The show was developed by students in a workshop at Emerson University, and they'll present it at Tulane July 19-22.