Horatio may be played by a girl in a school uniform, yet this is the only aspect of Hamlet that gives away the fact that the performers are all high school students. The American High School Theatre Festival production is anything but amateur. Over from Piedmont, California, the cast of ten actors and actresses bravely take on the challenge of performing one of Shakespeare’s most frequently staged texts. Edited down to an hour-and-fifty-minute performance, the AHSTF’s Hamlet stays true to the original whilst being expertly infused with original twists and touches.
Still set in the Kingdom of Denmark, the AHSTF’s Hamlet is torn from Elizabethan times and thrown into the late 20th or early 21st century using the ultimate definer of our age: technology. Cameras and newspapers abound as Hamlet’s tragedy is transported to a time when wearing a wire has become a more effective way of listening in on private conversations than Shakespeare’s beloved hide-behind-a-screen strategy. Guns and lie detectors are also at the ready, expelling the lengthy process of questioning. Indeed, there is a Baz Luhrmann feel to the performance.
Kimberly Taylor has done a brilliant job of directing the crew. A simple spotlight on a solo actor while the rest of the screen freezes is a clever way of preserving the Shakespearean monologue without contradicting the decision to set the play in contemporary times. Moreover, the decision to convert Polonius into Polonia is remarkably fitting, the role of the conniving, nosey mother expertly conveyed by Amy Kelleher. As for the mourning prince Hamlet, Wesley Dunlap presents a charismatic, energetic, and physically convincing Dane. His gleeful madness injects humour into the tragic play and his stage presence is strong.
The soundtrack to the play is well chosen; surprisingly, the decision to include string versions of classic Nirvana and Lady Gaga tracks enhances the dramatic atmosphere and seems perfectly fitting in this American, teenage version of Shakespeare.
Although the odd hiccup occurs, and an occasional feeling of anachronism arises, these can easily be overlooked in what is become a fast-moving tragedy. Let’s hope that AHSTF keeps on bringing talented young Americans to the Fringe every year, as they have been since 1994.