One trend we’ve all encountered by now is the blending of classic literature with the stuff of wonderfully schlocky horror. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is clearly the most famous, but let us not forget “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” as well as “Little Women and Werewolves,” “Android Kerenina” and “Queen Victoria, Demon Slayer.”
Now we have a stage play in which William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy benefits from the inclusion of zombies, pirates, actual pacts with scantily clad female devils and (of course) vampires. “Hamlet, Prince of Darkness” actually faces something of a challenge. The play already has a vengeful ghost telling tales of Hell, hints of incest, insanity real and feigned, plus a blood bath that later Elizabethan playwrights were hard pressed to match. How then add to all these macabre elements and yet not manage to seem as if one were gilding the lilly?
The answer? Go over the top. Way over.
In this version, not only has Hamlet’s father returned from the dead as a vampire but he likes it! He even has a tendency to go around killing the witnesses to his nightly excursions (Horatio tells Hamlet about this and his reaction is “That sounds like Dad alright”). Polonius, Ophelia’s Dad, is renowned for giving all kinds of advice to his offspring–now he includes the classic slasher movie warning that to have sex means to attract the attention of an axe-wielding maniac. That’s just the way it is. When Hamlet mentions his suspicions that uncle Claudius murdered the previous kind, absolutely no one is even slightly surprised. “Oh yeah, I know that; EVERYONE knows that.” Meanwhile the Prince himself is made up to look not unlike Heath Ledger as the Joker but sans the laser-like purpose. He mopes and longs to die, until by a good chance he’s kidnapped by pirates and becomes one of them. He’s much, much happier wielding a sword on the high seas. Curiously enough, he even gains something like a a moral compass!
Robert Walthers plays Hamlet in the production by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater Group in North Hollywood (www.zombiejoes.com) with Clare Wess Yauss as his lady love, Ophelia (who falls into the moat, not to drown but rather to be devoured by what sounds like the Creature from the Black Lagoon). Her brother Laertes, a student of Dr. Frankenstein, decides to resurrect her. No need to do that with their dad, who becomes a flesh-eating zombie everyone avoids much as one does a pesky neighborhood dog that drools too much. Jim Cox is King Claudius, who openly proclaims he has sold his soul to the Devil, and comes across as a kind of wild-eyed maniac contemplating some inner vision of madness while now and then chatting with the rest of us about our mundane, mildly irritating lives. He, like Melissa Okey as Queen Gertrude (who really gets much too friendly with her own son), plays the part to the hilt and frantic energy.
Herein is my one real complaint.
Over-the-top farce really does require a more nuanced set of timing to work at its best. Yelling all one’s lines, cackling over every idea and pantomiming every story can work, do work, get a laugh. But they don’t get as much of a laugh, startle us nearly as much as when we see variety. The production has energy to spare, but too often its spent on volume and speedily running through the blocking. How much more entertaining if that energy had gone into filling the moments, in having the characters react to one another in interesting or surprising (or better yet, both) ways? More than one line seemed to beg to be said in an utterly ordinary tone of voice, as if to emphasize the weirdness of it all (and not incidentally, making that line funnier). The sword fight at the end illustrates this very well. Laertes and Hamlet draw two fencing foils and proceed to overact like hell. All well and good. But all they do is the same movement over and over again at the same not-very-fast speed while making the same grunting noises time after time after time. How much more interesting–and funnier–if they’d either done it at such a breakneck speed to be utterly ridiculous–or if they did some funny business with these two swords?
Is it fun? Emphatically, yes! The play has even proven so popular that its run just got extended for another month! Kudos to the entire cast, director Denise Devin and (especially) playwrite Richard Nathan. As plans for Halloween approach, this is precisely the kind of one-act play that should find an audience in cities wherever good theater and good horror have their fans. I found myself afterwords longing to see other casts mount their own versions, to see what some other set of performers might do to bring this play to life–or death, or undeath, or living death, or something like that.
The play also bears witness to how the current popularity of vampires filters into all media. Movies, television and books get the most attention, probably followed by comic books, web series and various video/computer games. Yet the live theater has its blood drinkers of late. A Chicago company did a production of “Carmilla,” while Off Broadway offered up a new production of the play that launched Bela Lugosi’s career. Now we see “Hamlet, Prince of Darkness” and it seems unlikely to be the last…