Being funny about Shakespeare is a difficult trick for theater companies, as occasional reappearances of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged prove. Having actors prance about in Elizabethan costumes saying “prithee,” "’twas” and “betimes” doesn’t really cut it. To succeed in making Shakespeare funny, you have to understand the text and have the courage and creativity to completely reconceptualize it.
This is something that the actor-writers at Buntport Theater do with style — as they'll no doubt show us again with a revival of Something Is Rotten, their unique take on Hamlet, which the troupe first premiered in 2006, then reprised in 2009.
The company will begin its nineteenth season in September with an original work, Universe 92; another new show debuts in 2020. That season will close with a remount, and there will be further remounts — three or four in total — before Buntport debuts its fiftieth original show in the spring of 2021, marking the end of the company’s twentieth season.
Hitting that fifty mark was pushed back a bit by a recent mishap. The current Buntport crew — Erin Rollman, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg, Brian Colonna and SamAnTha Schmitz — had originally planned to end its eighteenth season with a new original work, but Duggan hurt her foot practicing double-Dutch rope jumping. After a brief poll showed that Something Is Rotten was highly popular with audiences, the group decided to bring it back for six performances, starting Friday, May 24.
Former company member Evan Weissman, who stopped working full-time with the group in 2013 to devote his attention to Warm Cookies of the Revolution, the popular “civic health club” he founded, will return for Something Is Rotten, joining Edborg and Colonna. “It feels like how I imagine good musicians feel when they just connect with each other,” says Weissman. “You could change things up, the smallest thing, and someone else is right there with you. We’re so familiar with it and know each other so well as performers that we’re very present — the three of us are so present the whole time.”
Something Is Rotten isn’t Buntport’s only foray into Shakespeare. The group also staged Titus Andronicus, in which each actor played several roles: You could keep track of who was whom at any given moment by watching bulbs light up sequentially under rows of faces on a chart, and whenever someone died — which was every few minutes — he or she crawled across the stage to record the death before diving back into the action as someone else. No one who saw the production will forget Duggan, as the sadly mutilated Lavinia, waving the blood-gushing stumps of her arms and trying to answer questions with the bloodied stub of her severed tongue.
And in 2013, Buntport staged a richly beautiful and deeply serious take on The Tempest called Wake, a piece that both paid tribute to the playwright and made the work revelatory and new.
In Something Is Rotten, three hapless actors get together to put on Hamlet at the behest of a sock-puppet ghost. One of them is very serious about the project, the others are both indifferent and incompetent. Ophelia is played by a goldfish, and her brother, Laertes, by a Teddy Ruxpin bear — giving entirely new meaning to Queen Gertrude’s mournful pronouncement that “Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.”
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Over the years there have been a few goldfish stars — all of which died of natural causes, according to Colonna. “We all have a fondness for the first Ophelia," he confesses. “She looked at you while you were talking. She had a stage presence that can’t be taught.”
Something Is Rotten is intensely and deliberately silly, but it’s also a mountain of fun. “It’s character-driven," explains Colonna. "The comedy comes from these inept performers. People have seen great productions of Hamlet, but with the ineptitude of these characters, we let ourselves off the hook.”
It’s even fun to rehearse. “It’s pretty crazy,” Colonna continues. “We’ve done this so many times it took almost nothing to remember all the lines and a lot of the movements. It’s like a song you’ve known forever. When it comes on, you instantly remember the lyrics and all the emotions it evokes.”
Something Is Rotten opens Friday, May 24, at Buntport, 717 Lipan Street, where it continues until June 1. For tickets and more information, call 720-946-1388 or go to buntport.com.