This spring, Brüka Theatre’s new workshop production takes up the high body count of Shakespeare’s famous — and famously long — tragedy, Hamlet.
“Hamlet” has a full runtime worthy of its many deaths. When a young, volatile Prince Hamlet learns from a ghost that his uncle killed his father to take the crown, he strikes up a plan to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”
Over the next three hours, if no significant cuts to the script are made, viewers watch this plan go horribly awry, taking the rest of Hamlet’s family, his friends and eventually Hamlet himself with it. All told, nine named bodies hit the floor. Not quite as many as the 14 in “Titus Andronicus,” but still nothing to scoff at.
In Brüka Theatre’s dimmed, atmospheric venue, “When Churchyards Yawn” cuts to 40 years after the fact. The nine fatalities of “Hamlet” have advanced to purgatory. If they manage to let go of their sins in life and forgive each other, they’ll make it to heaven. If not, well, there’s a very menacing door waiting for them at stage right.
Martin A. David and Jeanmarie Simpson, directors of the show, make a casting choice both refreshing and direly needed in the theater world: older actors take on all the roles, including Hamlet, Laertes and Ophelia. In typical productions of “Hamlet,” these three are teenagers, and often cast accordingly.
Age lends these characters dimension which can sometimes be hard to see in the original. Joel Barber, who absolutely devastates in a few astounding moments as Laertes, gives the character a booming voice and seasoned power compelling the audience to reconsider him.
Jeanmarie Simpson, who also wrote the script, anchors Laertes by the fact he played by the rules, followed in his father’s ambitious footsteps and lost all the same. This interpretation can still strike a chord when in the hands of a young actor, but Barber’s performance has the heft of decades behind it.
Claudius and Gertrude are also highlights, played respectively by Bob Gabrielli and Terri Gray. Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, is behind the murder of his father. However, in the pages of “Hamlet,” it seems his mother, Gertrude, receives most of his rage. Gertrude, just weeks after Hamlet’s father is buried, weds Claudius, and much of Hamlet’s breath is spent shaming her for doing so.
But as “When Churchyards Yawn” is eager to point out, Gertrude had no idea of Claudius’ darker plans. And beyond that, Simpson’s script argues, she doesn’t deserve to be shamed for a desperate grasp at happiness, especially given how little we know about Hamlet’s father and his character from the text of “Hamlet” itself.
And where “When Churchyards Yawn” concerns Hamlet’s father, Martin A. David’s interpretation of the guy is delightful. Apathetic and very likely baked, he takes a “meh” approach to the play’s baggage, mostly content to sit out major fights and laugh to the side.
When the play hits its stride in the second act, however, Simpson’s writing cracks his apathy open to reveal its human cost on his family. David is both hilarious and heartbreaking in the production’s rich reimagining of the original’s one-note ghost.
“When Churchyards Yawn,” struggles with the balance between existing story and added material. When Simpson’s additions aren’t too much of a leap from the text, the emotional weight they levy onto the characters is convincing. When a moment of reckoning rests too much on headcanon, it feels like the departure is angling to tell an entirely different story.
Dialogue, too, can’t always say where it stands. Simpson rightly keeps the Shakespearean effect to a minimum, but in eschewing all pretense, the characters often state plainly exactly what they feel, and some potential drama is lost. “I have issues,” is said frankly and outright; at a few points, a character will shut down an escalating argument by just yelling, “stop!”
Stylistic choices aside, it’s thrilling to see a new interpretation of Shakespeare take the stage in Reno, especially one with such interesting ideas as “When Churchyards Yawn.”
If “Hamlet” or “The Good Place” in any way appeal to you, the company behind this marriage of both is well worth your attention.
Brüka Theatre’s 30th season continues with The Beauty Queen of Leenane, April 28 to May 14.
Peregrine Hart can be reached via email at email@example.com or via Twitter @pintofperegrine.