‘Bad Hamlet’ actors look to find real Hamlet

By Mollie Durkin

To be bad or not to be bad, that was the question.

And it was a question that many people… To be bad or not to be bad, that was the question.

And it was a question that many people pondered at the Bellefield Hall auditorium Sunday night. About 80 people — most of them students — came to see the production of “Bad Hamlet,” a 30-minute play written by two Carnegie Mellon University students.

The play focuses on the three versions of William Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet,” that historians can date back to Shakespeare’s time. These are known, in chronological order, as Quarto 1 in 1603; Quarto 2 in 1604 or 1605 and the Folio in 1623. “Bad Hamlet” refers to Quarto 1, and the play contends that its name comes not from being chastised or being a James Dean-esque “Rebel Without a Cause.” Rather, it is shorter and more action-packed, and — as mentioned in the play — is thought to be a pirated copy, rehearsal copy for a touring company or a first draft of Shakespeare’s play. The play features three Hamlets who represent the three drafts of “Hamlet.”

Anthea Carns, a CMU senior majoring in dramaturgy, co-wrote the play. She explained that she and her fellow playwright, Lillian DeRitter, wanted to have these texts arguing with each other on the stage.

“It’s so tempting to be like, ‘I know the right way to do ‘Hamlet,’’” Carns said. “I wanted to shake up the way people feel about Shakespeare.”

Along with three male Hamlets, there are three female Hamlets who stand for famous women in theater history who have played Hamlet. Charlotte Charke, known as the first female Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt, who played Hamlet in Le Duel d’Hamlet in a 1900 French adaptation; and Leea Klemola, who played the gender-neutral Han in a 1995 Finnish punk version of “Hamlet” gathered on the stage with the three male versions of Hamlet. Both a male and female Ophelia — Hamlet’s love interest who becomes insane — graced the stage as well.

Through casting and scholastic dialogue, “Bad Hamlet” addresses the role of gender in text and performance, as well as the quest to find the “real” Hamlet, Carns said.

The play is framed by two scholars who commentate on the versions of “Hamlet” while giving facts and analysis about the play so as to keep the audience in tune with its academic nature. One of the scholars points out that “Hamlet is the most cited figure after Jesus Christ,” giving the play’s in-depth breakdown of Hamlet’s significance.

Carns, who played Charlotte Charke, said that “Bad Hamlet” is influenced by Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke and Laurence Olivier’s filmic versions of “Hamlet.”

“[The play] steals bits from all of those and fights with them,” she said.

During a question-and-answer session following the play, dozens of playgoers stuck around to pick the cast members’ brains. The audience noted influence from “Slings and Arrows,” a Canadian TV series that features Shakespearean humor, and offered the cast positive reviews.

Marrick Smith, who played Folio, responded to praise of the different dynamics of Hamlet the play offered.

“I think we each had distinct and different energies,” Smith said.

“Bad Hamlet” premiered at CMU’s Playground Festival of Student Work last fall, and Carns said if it weren’t for Sunday’s performance, the play would still be waiting on a shelf for revision.

Pitt’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Women’s Studies programs, as well as Undergraduate Dean John Twyning in the School of Arts and Sciences, sponsored the production, helping pay for space in the Bellefield Hall auditorium and other expenses. The play was free and open to the public. Carns said the play was low budget because of a sparse set and simple costuming, provided by CMU’s costume shop.

Jen Waldron, director of Pitt’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program, is also an assistant professor of English at Pitt who teaches Lectures in Literature. Because the theme of the course is adaptation, she encouraged her class to come to the play for extra credit. She said some of the Introduction to Shakespeare classes were offered extra credit to attend as well.

Waldron said “Bad Hamlet” bridges the gap between scholarship and entertainment. She said she tries to host events like this each year, for example she once welcomed academic speaker Anthony Grafton.

“I think ‘Bad Hamlet’ definitely succeeded in building on and dramatizing scholarly debates about the play,” she said in an e-mail yesterday. “One of my students in Lectures in Literature today commented that she brought a friend with her who has never read Hamlet and he said the play made him want to go read it.”

“Bad Hamlet” was accepted to the Last Frontier Theatre Conference’s 2011 Play Lab in Valdez, Alaska, which takes place from June 12-18. It was one of 72 plays that were selected out of about 280 submissions.

The play will be read as part of a professional workshop at the weeklong conference. Carns, an Anchorage, Alaska, native, will attend for the first time as a playwright.