Jungle crafts a 'Hamlet' for modern times

Hugh Kennedy as Hamlet.

Hugh Kennedy as Hamlet.

​It is crunch time for the Jungle Theater's Hamlet, and director Bain Boehlke sounds... a little scared.

"When Daniel Day Lewis played the role in London, he didn't make it to opening night," 
Boehlke says. "Doing a play like this, you have to go through the eye of the needle. You have to go through the play's transformational energy field, which is brutal."

Taking on Hamlet is a huge task, especially as the always ambitious Boehlke has moved the action to the contemporary world, taking many cues from the film Hamlet 2000, which integrated plenty of technology into the story, and even removed some familiar characters. (There's no gravedigger scene here, Yorik fans.)

Or, if you want a different analogy: "It is like if a surfboard was a gigantic barge, and the wave was a 1000 feet tall. This production is so epic, so huge, and so challenging, but everyday the barge seems to move onward."

Jungle newcomer Hugh Kennedy plays the title role, which has taken its physical toll long before opening night as he was injured during combat rehearsals and was out for a couple of days. Beyond that, the sheer weight of the role has been daunting. 

"It's absolutely been up and down and all over the place, in ways I didn't foresee in the beginning. It's a big thrill, but if you lose your balance, this show will eat you up," Kennedy says. "I've always prided myself as an actor who can go to a dark place and come out, but this role has been, more than any other, harder to unplug from. It just keeps running through your consciousness."

Boehlke chose a modern vibe for the production, re-imaging Hamlet and Horatio as film students, the castle with high-tech security, and the ghost of Hamlet's father first appearing as an apparition on a security camera. While the play within the play "is a multimedia presentation that fits in with Hamlet as a film student and an artist interested in new technology," he says.

Presenting the show in modern times has its dangers and rewards. "We don't know what the past looked like, but when you get to today the accuracy of observation is essential if the audiences are going to be absorbed. The set can alienate or draw them into the world that the characters are living in," Boehlke says.

"I've never been one for putting Shakespeare in contemporary settings, but I've edited the play to take out a lot of archaic language," he says. "When the British do Shakespeare, they employ the melodies of contemporary British speech; we must bring our vernacular and idiomatic rhythms to it. It's important for actors to bring alive the broken music of humanity. We like to hear people talking and behaving as human beings. That's what so heartbreaking about it."

Boehlke sees multiple facets to Hamlet's tragedy. At one level, he is an innocent betrayed by the existing corrupt system. At another, the flaw is inside. Like Macbeth "he doesn't listen to his inner voice. He wants to be obedient to his father, but he also has to think for himself. To kill or not to kill."

Hamlet opens Friday at the Jungle Theater and runs through October 9.