“Hamlet” is a tragedy. But for Chris Mangels, it’s also an incredible black comedy, a beautiful heroic drama and one of the best thrillers ever written.
“We embrace every aspect of its mixed-genre potential,” the director says of the new Fourth Wall Theatre production, which opens Friday, Aug. 7, at the Main Street Theatre in Visalia.
Mangels, known for his innovative and thoughtful productions at College of the Sequoias and at the Fourth Wall, is helping the company celebrate its 30th anniversary with this “Hamlet.” We caught up with him via email to talk about the show.
We play a lot with the idea of the private life versus the public face because I think one of the chief themes of the play is focused on the intimate struggle of a family to keep its skeletons securely locked away in its closet.
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Q: This “Hamlet” has a contemporary vibe, and at one point the title character sports a pair of headphones. Have you set it in a specific time period/setting or are you just generally calling it a modern adaptation?
A: Because Hamlet has always struck me as Shakespeare’s most contemporary work, it is perhaps the most simple adaptation I’ve ever done in terms of setting. It exists in a world very much like our own, where the wealthy elite are comprised of a mix of royalty, politicians, celebrities, and corporate executives, and the line is often blurred between them.
James McDonnell (my costume designer) and I have also worked to explore how modern royalty exists in our contemporary world. Though these modern royals are often in the public eye in an official capacity, there seems to be a lot of effort keep their private lives a secret. That very much appealed me to in regards to how Claudius, the play’s antagonist, tries to spin all of the dark things going on at Elsinore Castle for public consumption. We play a lot with the idea of the private life versus the public face because I think one of the chief themes of the play is focused on the intimate struggle of a family to keep its skeletons securely locked away in its closet.
Prince Hamlet represents the potential for chaos in their ordered lives and that’s what makes him incredibly dangerous to Claudius. Hamlet is ‘of that world,’ but he is also haunted — both figuratively and literally — by the expectations of his forefathers. I saw his trademark sense of obsession and isolation symbolized in the headphones he listens to throughout the show (which also serves to provide our production with a really wonderful score.)
Q: “Hamlet” is usually cut quite a bit from its four-hour-plus running time. Tell us about your version.
A: I made my own cuts though I am sure I have been subconsciously influenced by many of the productions I have seen, particularly a 1993 production by Berkeley’s California Shakespeare Festival that focused heavily on the comedy of the piece. There is a real necessity to make its running time more palatable for local audiences, and ours comes in at a brisk 2.5 hours with intermission.
I wanted to focus as much as possible on seeing the events of the play through Hamlet’s eyes, so, while many compelling aspects of the original story line (like the parallel efforts of Prince Fortinbras) have been eliminated, we have brought some fresh new perspectives to Hamlet’s relationships with his peers, especially Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Q: “Hamlet” is such a good play is produced a lot. Does this put an extra burden on you as a director? Or does it make your job easier?
A: It’s funny because, though it gets produced professionally a lot and there are multiple adaptations on film, I have spoken to a surprisingly large number of people who’ve never seen it performed live. I am less concerned with bringing “something fresh” to the table and more aware of the need to make it accessible, regardless of each audience member’s history with the play. Ultimately, though I am always conscious of the audience and how they will both perceive and receive the production, all I can do is try to craft the “Hamlet” that I have always wanted to see and hope that I’m not alone in my aesthetic.
Q: What is your own history with “Hamlet”?
A: I have never worked on it in any capacity, but I have been in love with it since I first read it 20 years ago. Also, I have been teaching a class on Shakespeare at College of the Sequoias for the past seven years. I always wrap up the course with a unit on “Hamlet” because I think it truly is Shakespeare’s finest work. The characters and their actions are infinitely interpretable, and that has made it an incredibly fun and challenging project to develop with my collaborators.
Q: Talk about your relationship with Adam Rodriguez, who plays Hamlet. How did having him in the title role affect your direction of the show?
A: Adam and I worked together a lot during his time at COS. He starred in productions I directed like “The Grapes of Wrath” (Tom Joad), “Avenue Q” (Princeton), and “Julius Caesar” (Mark Antony), worked as a featured players in several other plays, and was also one of my most indispensable scenic assistants in Stagecraft ... in fact, it was primarily Adam and I who hand-beaded the massive chandelier for 2011’s “Phantom of the Opera” over multiple “all-nighters.”
During that time, Adam not only proved himself to be one of the most gifted students I have ever worked with, but he also become my friend. I am thankful that our personal relationship continued to grow after he transferred to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts two years ago to study at the prestigious Atlantic Studio. Though I have been attracted to the idea of directing “Hamlet” for many years, I have always refused to do so without knowing in advance who would (and could) play the title role.
When Adam and I got together in New York over a year ago, we talked about his process and all of the amazing things he was studying, and at some point I mentioned that perhaps we should tackle “Hamlet” down the line. When we got together at spring break this year, he told me he’d be coming home this summer, and if I was free, he’d be game. I had originally intended to take the summer off, but the opportunity to finally tackle this show was too tempting.
I started to shop the concept around to all of my most trusted collaborators, and — without a single audition — put together a company of artists that I adore. Though my actors come from a wide variety of background and experience levels, I feel blessed to have them involved and their varied experiences and approaches make, I think, for a very eclectic production. At the center of this is Adam as Hamlet, who brings an incredibly intense love for the character. He is a very intelligent young man who is also highly protective of Shakespeare’s original intentions with the character. That — combined with my somewhat post-modern sensibilities — has made for a lot of lively discussion and intense exploration, and I am so proud of him for the performance he has crafted. It is incredibly dynamic — and really visceral — and I think that our audiences will be very happy to journey through the play with him as their guide.
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7, and Saturday, Aug. 8; 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9; and Aug. 14-16
- Main Street Theatre, 307 E. Main St., Visalia