KU students’ production puts 3 spins on ‘Hamlet’

One of the hardest things to do in art is to make something old and familiar fresh. Danny Devlin has some ideas about that.

“‘Hamlet’ is the most well-known, well-researched play ever,” he says. “We’re taking three very different approaches to it.”

By “we,” he means himself and fellow Ph.D. students Jeanne Tiehen and Scott Knowles. The three are combining their talents for the “second act” of Kansas University Theatre’s Black Box Directing Project.

“Typically, this project is presented as two one-acts,” Devlin says. “Scott and Jeanne and I are each directing a short piece, so you’ll get three plays in the second act all on the same theme.”

That theme is revision, and the idea began as an entry into the Mid-America Theatre Conference, being held in Cleveland in March. The trio applied to the conference and was accepted. Then they turned to KU.

If you go

Black Box Directing Projects: “The Boor” and “Antic Disposition: Variations of Hamlet” opens Friday and runs Feb. 15, 16, 18, 19 and 20 in the Inge Theatre at KU’s Murphy Hall. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday, Feb. 16, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the theatre box office at 785-864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.

“In the past, this project has been largely for undergraduate directors,” Devlin says. “But this year, the administration indicated it would be open to applications from graduate students. So we applied as a group, and they liked our idea. It gives us a chance to sort of tune up before MATC.”

Each director takes on “Hamlet” in their own way. Devlin presents Tom Stoppard’s “The 15-Minute Hamlet,” in which the entirety of Shakespeare’s immortal classic is performed in, as the title suggests, 15 minutes.

“We’ll be giving an audience member a stopwatch,” Devlin says.

In a meta-theatrical twist, a frame tale of KU students getting permission to perform “Hamlet” will be tempered with the comedic catch that the theatre department only gives them a quarter hour to put it on.

See Hamlet run

Tiehen directs “The Dick and Jane Hamlet” by Larry Siegel. Another comic take on the most famous tragedy of all time, this version presents “Hamlet” as if it were told through a 1960s-style early reading book. Imagine the play acted with simple sentences like, “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”

Finally, Knowles presents “Hamlet Machine,” which has Hamlet refusing to be Hamlet anymore and centers on his relationship with Ophelia. Devlin describes it as a post-modern take on some of the themes in the play.

“Each play is a pretty good example of the personalities and interests of the director,” Devlin says.

Contributing complexity to the project, all three directors worked with the same actors. So the troupe moves through performing three different styles of revision on “Hamlet.”

“We wanted there to be an equal workload,” Devlin says. “So we split it up so that the actors are all playing different parts in each play, even though it’s the characters from ‘Hamlet’ every time.”

Thus, while the directors were exploring new variations on old themes, the actors were getting opportunities to hone their craft as well: shifting from part to part to part.

And all that only covers the second act. The show opens with senior theatre student Brian Buntin’s presentation of Anton Chekhov’s, “The Boor.” Considered one of the finer one-act plays of the Russian School of Drama, Chekhov’s comedy concerns a misogynistic landlord attempting to force a widow to settle her late husband’s large debt.

Where the graduate students are focusing on revision, Buntin offers contrast with a classical interpretation of Chekhov.

“We learn the most by reading and studying the ‘greats’ that came before us,” Buntin says. “As an undergraduate director, I’m excited to keep honestly to Chekhov’s text as my first priority.”

Buntin is sharing the same troupe of actors with the graduate students, so it will be another opportunity for the performers to develop their range, moving between a traditional rendering of Chekhov to three wildly different variations on “Hamlet.”

“There’s a large variety of material,” Devlin says. “It should be fun.”


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