ITW brings acclaimed “I Am Hamlet” to Vineyard

A rock and roll belting Hamlet, an eight-foot tall masked ghost with horns, a bearded Ophelia, and gravedigger puppets — “I am Hamlet” is not your average production of Shakespeare’s masterwork.

As creator/director Joe Siracusa describes his one-man adaptation of Hamlet, “It’s kind of Andy-Warhol-pop-Shakespeare.” This fast-paced, entertaining show, which has played to critical acclaim all over the U.S. and abroad, is coming here to the Katharine Cornell Theatre for two performances this Sunday.

As unconventional as this may all sound, purists take heart; Mr. Siracusa has not altered any of the text of the Bard’s signature play (although he has added some modern touches in the song lyrics and shortened the four-hour play to two).

The seasoned playwright has simply packaged it all in a way that ratchets up the entertainment quota, and makes it more accessible for all audience members, including kids, whom he says love it.

Hamlet, et al, played by veteran actor/singer Brian Morey, makes quick on-stage costume changes in order to portray multiple characters. He lends his trained voice to a number of songs, the styles of which range from medieval to classic Broadway to pop and rock and roll — with Shakespeare’s text as lyrics. Mr. Siracusa employs puppets, a cinematic soundtrack for music and sound effects, spectacular props, and flashy authentic swords — seven in all — to keep the action going non-stop. The rocket-fueled result is sort of a Broadway musical, big budget spectacle, and performance art piece all in one.

Joe Siracusa — theater impressario

Mr. Siracusa is a 30-year theater professional whose credits include shows performed in more than 200 cities worldwide, invitations to more than 300 international theater festivals, and workshops and theater classes at a number of universities. He has founded and/or produced performing arts festivals, including Atlanta’s Worldfest, which played to over 100,000 people. The writer/performer/director has penned several theater adaptations from classic literature and five other unconventional Shakespeare adaptations.

“I am Hamlet” is Mr. Siracusa’s latest project and he describes it as a culmination of all of the ways in which he has been playing around with the works of the Bard since his days as an undergrad studying under the number one Shakespearean coach in the U.S.

“My whole thing is clarity,” says Mr. Siracusa. “Wherever it’s difficult to understand the meaning, I make it more interesting.” He notes of his production, “It’s crystal clear. You can follow every word.”

The play’s the thing

Oddly, the show’s writer/director says that until recently he never really cared for “Hamlet.”

“I’d never seen a production that I liked,” he says. “It seemed like this really mundane kind of Camus thing. I hated it.” However, since Mr. Siracusa’s students had started referring to him as the Shakespeare guy, he realized that it was imperative that he revisit the Bard’s classic work, which he hadn’t reread for many years. “At the first couple of lines I was riveted by it. It just grabbed me right from the beginning. I couldn’t put it down. I thought ‘I am Hamlet. Everybody’s Hamlet.’”

His interest was sparked by newfound insight into Hamlet’s personality, which differs from the traditional scholarly approach to Shakespeare’s complex character. He relates his personal theory on the play saying, “Because of the influence of Freud and Jung, one or two renowned directors of the day got into the psychological aspect and decided to do a melancholic Hamlet. If you read the play and his [Shakespeare's] notes, it’s not there at all. It’s an action, adventure, romance, revenge story.” Mr. Siracusa adds that the title character’s seeming madness is a subterfuge designed to enable him to continue an investigation into his father’s murder unimpeded. “The psychology aspect of Hamlet is a complete flaw in other productions,” he opines. “It’s really about action, action, action.”

Genesis of the show

While working on a commissioned version of “Othello” with a dance company in upstate New York, Mr. Siracusa was inspired by one of the actors, Brian Morey, who was playing Iago, to try his hand at Hamlet. The director and actor started working on the material, but as things progressed, Mr. Morey’s schedule prevented his getting together with an acting troupe on a regular basis, so Mr. Siracusa decided to turn the production into a one-man show. He was convinced that his star had the necessary power, energy, and versatility to carry the show solo.

Mr. Morey is an accomplished actor, singer, musical director, and producer who has performed throughout the world and whose impressive credits include vocal solos in shows at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. He has a powerhouse of a voice and his delivery of songs by multiple characters in a wide range of styles makes the music alone a reason to attend this unorthodox performance.

Mr. Siracusa connected with the Island Theatre Workshop (ITW), through artistic director Kaf Warman, a professor at his alma mater Carnegie Mellon University. He explains that during an extended visit to the Island last fall, a friend suggested that he reach out to Ms. Warman to discuss the possibility of performing his show here. Mr. Siracusa notes that coincidentally, Ms. Warman was already on his radar as his only Vineyard contact, and that their meeting and collaboration was serendipitous.

ITW is interested in hosting “I am Hamlet” for a summer series and would welcome Mr. Siracusa’s involvement with their summer children’s theater project and other educational endeavors. ITW board president Stephanie Burke notes, “We’re always looking for ways to get old and young together to appreciate Shakespeare.”

Mr. Siracusa is enthusiastic about the possibility of returning. “It’s as magical as it gets,” he says of the Vineyard. “I love the vibe and the people. It’s a real vortex of spirituality and creativity. I’d love to do anything on the Vineyard.”

“I Am Hamlet,” 3 and 7:30 pm, Sunday, March 20, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $10 + 1 item for Island Food Pantry. Sponsored by Island Theatre Workshop. 508-627-2456.