It's definitely not your father's "Hamlet" — and that's OK. It's every bit as intense but, in Westfield High's production, Shakespeare's timeless classic is offered in a fresh and creative new setting — a techno dance club.
Featuring a 40-person cast, the play will be presented Friday-Sunday, Nov. 22-24. Friday-Saturday showtimes are 8 p.m.; on Sunday, Nov. 24, the curtain rises at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door.
It's Westfield's Cappie contender and, since Westfield won four Cappie awards last year for "Godspell," audiences have come to expect extra-special things from this 3-year-old school. This version of Hamlet continues that tradition. Students will speak Shakespearean dialogue while unfolding the tragedy of Hamlet's life. But the music, costumes and scenery will be modern-day.
"We'll wear 1990s leather clothing," said actress Suzanna Ramsey. "We'll get our costumes from modern stores such as Rave, Hot Topic and Forever 21." The only ones in period costumes will be those portraying a traveling troupe of actors who perform the famous "play within a play" written by Hamlet.
Ramsey was initially leery of drama director Scott Pafumi's decision to place "Hamlet" in techno times. Now, she said, "It makes so much sense, the way he's brought his vision to life and made it so clear. Shakespeare has many layers and, the more we do it, the more we learn about it. We dig deeper and pull out stuff in the play that we never saw was in there before."
King Hamlet is killed by his brother Claudius, who then marries Hamlet's widow Gertrude; together, they reign as king and queen of Denmark. King Hamlet was more reserved and removed from his people, but the personable, friendly and witty King Claudius is well-liked by his subjects.
"He introduces the techno/rave party scene to the people," said Ramsey. "Everyday life turns into more of a party." Meanwhile, the dead king's son, Prince Hamlet, talks to his father's spirit — cleverly depicted by three, separate embodiments of one ghost, each with different tones and emotions.
From this ghost (portrayed by Will Chaffin, James McEwan and Eric Gregory), he learns that power-hungry Claudius murdered his father. "He wants Hamlet to avenge his death, and it takes him five whole acts to get his act together and do it," said Ramsey. "There's so much drama and emotion, it's going to be amazing. I think it'll really click with the audience."
Junior Derek Rommel plays the tormented Claudius. "He wants so badly to be king and for everything to be all right, but he can't escape the memory of what he's done — and of his brother, who lives through Prince Hamlet," explained Rommel. "He just wants to party, drink, dance and be in love, but everything starts going wrong. His guilt overwhelms his conscience and he'll stop at nothing to kill Prince Hamlet."
It's a powerful role — one Rommel relishes. "There's such a wide range of emotions — happiness, love, guilt and an anger that can't be quenched," he said. "I'm really excited to get [it] because there's so much you can do with it — especially during the moments when the king bares his soul and you see the guilty creature inside of him." He's also pleased with the production and believes it'll "strengthen [Westfield's] reputation as a drama department."
Playing his wife Gertrude (Prince Hamlet's mother) is senior Kylene Short. "I have new life and fire in me because of my new marriage, and I have an energetic and fiery spirit," she said of her character. "Claudius and I are all over each other — hardcore PDA [public displays of affection]. But with Hamlet, I'm very motherly."
Although Short, 17, is a veteran actress at Westfield, it's her first real lead and a big responsibility. "It can be overwhelming because I'm in so many scenes," she said. "But I enjoy Shakespeare — I've studied him since I was 10."
She's also excited because most of the cast wears regular clothes, instead of costumes. "I'm wearing my Cappies gown from last year for the first scene, and I get to look pretty and elegant," she said. "The rest of the cast will be in cool, clubbin' clothes, and Hamlet will be all in black, Banana Republic clothes."
Senior Brent Biondo plays Prince Hamlet, whom he describes as a deep and profound person with a lot happening inside his head. "He wanes between depressed and plotting, devious and maniacal," said Biondo, 17. "But he's just gotten a raw deal in life — his dad died, his mom married his uncle, he should be king, but the throne was usurped by Claudius."
When Hamlet's father visits him as a ghost, he must choose between accepting his life as is, ending it or improving it. "Sometimes, you just want him to make up his mind," said Biondo. "The audience feels a certain way, and they want him to take some action. At the end of the play, everything comes together when he finally [does] — leading to quite a climactic end."
It's a demanding part, and Biondo not only has many lines to memorize, but must portray emotions ranging from depression to anger to regret. "It's definitely the most challenging role I've ever played, and it's bettering my craft in a large way," he said. "We're giving people 'Hamlet' in a new light."
Ashley Ford, 16, plays Ophelia, who loves Hamlet but goes insane when he kills her father, Polonius. "I get to think of totally weird ways of acting out my lines," she said. And, said Ford, "People who may not understand Shakespeare may understand [our version] better because it's modernized."
Junior Joe Schumacher plays Polonius, who meddles in his daughter's love life. "I have strong, dramatic and tragic moments, but [also] goofy, comic moments," he said. "Shakespearean drama is a new genre for Westfield to explore, and I think we'll create a beautiful portrait of Shakespearean dramatic art."
Playing Hamlet's female confidant Horatio is Megan Henry, 16. "I've known him forever and have unspoken love for him," she said. "My favorite part is [saying], 'Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.'" Calling it "a fresh look at an old English play," Henry said Westfield's "Hamlet" has "cool music and choreographed fight scenes, and it touches people's emotions."
Carl Calabrese, 18, plays Polonius' son, the headstrong Laertes — out to avenge his father's death and his sister's honor. And he and Hamlet duel with swords. "It's given me a great opportunity to show what I can do," said Calabrese. "I like Laertes because he gives such an impact to the family."
Kevin Knickerbocker and Jesse Leahy play, respectively, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's college buddies. "The entire play, we have no idea why Hamlet's mad at us," said Knickerbocker. "It's really fun because, in real life, Jesse is my best friend." Leahy calls his character a "confused, gullible college boy," trying to find out what's wrong with Hamlet.
The play's set and technical aspects are also impressive. Senior Blake Gross created the techno music on his computer, and the set features a two-story house with a large dance hall, a balcony and two exterior staircases.
"This is the biggest set we've ever done, and the platforms with different levels make it appealing to the eye," said technical director Jenn Henderson. "Every one of the tech [crew members] has been special. I'm impressed with how well they've done everything. John Bennett is doing lighting, and the sound will be a juxtaposition of madrigal music and techno."
Set designer Andrew Polski, 17, drew his plans on graph paper in July, put them on the computer and printed them. His challenge was making a temporary structure both stable and compact. "I've always liked to build and draw, and this is where I get to mix them together," he said. He enjoyed utilizing his creativity and hopes to major in architecture and engineering in college.
"'Hamlet' is a play about the theatre of Shakespeare's life," adds director Pafumi. "I hope that we will teach the audience about the history of the theatre as exemplified in an amazing journey through one man's right of passage."