SCRANTON — William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” more than 400 years ago, but the tragic story has endured as both a stage play and a piece of art adaptable for television and film. New Vintage Ensemble was founded in 2013 after a production of “Pride & Prejudice” went so well its participants decided to band together and, according to their manifesto, they “thrive on reinventing the familiar with a style all their own.” It stands to reason then that the ensemble’s January production of the play won’t be your dad’s “Hamlet.” It definitely won’t be Hamlet’s dad’s “Hamlet,” because Hamlet’s dad is dead.
This isn’t a spoiler; Hamlet is mourning the death of his father (who is also Hamlet) at the beginning of “Hamlet” when Hamlet’s ghost comes to Hamlet and instructs his son to avenge him.
If this seems confusing, well, that’s because it can be, and the play’s use of early modern English dialogue doesn’t make it any more accessible. When New Vintage Ensemble decided to take on one of the most famous works from one of the world’s most performed playwrights they didn’t just decide to make it their own, they decided to make it the audience’s too.
“We have condensed it ever so slightly and we have tweaked it and softened it, however, it is still very much Shakespearean,” Conor O’Brien, who plays Hamlet in the ensemble’s production, said. “We’ve taken consideration with some plot elements we’ve cut for the sake of time and softened certain phrases, wording and syntax to give it more of a modern tone.”
Those considerations don’t stop at the script. O’Brien described the production as “cinematic,” with underscoring (the playing of music under scenes), lighting techniques and special effects not traditional to stagecraft. The sets and costumes also stray from the familiar, according to ensemble member Mandy Pennington.
“There are incredible costumes and minimalist sets that keep all the focus on the actors,” Pennington said. “There’s an aesthetic about the show that blends together elements of many times, places and cultural influences. It’s got a very Tim Burton/Alexander McQueen-type feel.”
Both O’Brien and Pennington credit their director, Casey Thomas, with the production’s approach and tone. O’Brien said he and Thomas discussed the play’s core concepts and the themes they wanted to bring to the forefront, then Thomas followed those ideas where they led him and brought what he found back to O’Brien. The two presented their idea to the ensemble for a vote and, after partnering with Scranton Cultural Center, preparations for a January opening began.
O’Brien will star opposite Mollie Dooley’s, Ophelia, at the Jan. 8 opening of “Hamlet.” This is Dooley’s second time performing Shakespeare (she had a small role in a production of “Taming of the Shrew” when she was 18) and her first time as a member of a New Vintage Ensemble production. Dooley worked with members of the ensemble before and when it came time to find their Ophelia, one of those members called on Dooley to attend the audition.
Thomas’ vision for the production led to story trimming, dialogue edits and set minimization; this approach extended to the characters themselves. O’Brien said his interpretation of Hamlet is that of a young man who had to grow up fast after experiencing the death of his father and is struggling with the introspective, melancholy thoughts of both young adulthood and profound loss. Dooley is using the freedom afforded to her by the director to find the strength in the classically timid Ophelia.
“Traditionally speaking, there aren’t many female parts in this play and they’re not necessarily strong female roles,” Dooley said. “A lot of times Ophelia comes across as very weak because she doesn’t have a lot of power at court, so I think it’s easy to write her off as a weak simpering female. I’ve tried really hard to show that she can be decisive and has control of her life and makes some really bold and daring choices for a woman of her circumstances.”
Dooley said Thomas allowed the actors to connect with their characters, find aspects of them to emphasize and attempt to express those aspects during rehearsal. This allowed Dooley to find Ophelia’s place in the “Hamlet” New Vintage created, and because of the expressive, accepting atmosphere, she calls this production one of her favorite theater experiences.
“It’s very much an ensemble in that everyone has feedback and input,” Dooley said. “You can talk to other members about your character and try different things and collaboration is really encouraged. There’s no fear of failure, there’s just reinventing and trying again. Everyone here is so enthusiastic and energetic. We open in a week and no one’s scared or nervous; we’re just excited to unleash our production on the world.”
New Vintage Ensemble’s production of Hamlet, starring Conor O’Brien and Mollie Dooley, opens 8 p.m. Jan. 8 at Scranton Cultural Center’s Shopland Hall.
Reach Gene Axton at 570-991-6121 or on Twitter @TLArts
IF YOU GO
What: New Vintage Ensemble in partnership with Scranton Cultural Center presents “Hamlet”
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 8 and Jan. 15 (Fridays), 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Jan. 9 and Jan. 16 (Saturdays)
Where: Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple, 420 North Washington Avenue, Scranton
Cost: $15, available at regional Ticketmaster outlets and ticketmaster.com. Also available at Scranton Cultural Center’s box office in person or by phone at 570-344-1111