Wednesday, December 07, 2005

REV: Hamlet in Unlikely Places

Teens create Hamlet 'in the Hood'

CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- Hamlet's father runs a club -- not a kingdom -- and the "sweet prince" drunkenly raps a version of his "To be or not to be" soliloquy in an urban teenage take on the Shakespearean play.

Brainstorming ideas for a project promoting nonviolence, the students chose a work in which almost all the main characters are dead by the time the curtain falls. But in their version, Hamlet openly discusses his troubles with his mother and friends, and his murderous uncle ends up in jail instead of dead at Hamlet's hands in a second, "rewind" ending.

"Hamlet in the Hood" is scheduled to be performed Thursday night at Alternatives, a nonprofit youth agency on Chicago's North Side.

Creator and co-writer Alan McDuffy said the play was not hard to update: Hamlet is a young man mourning his father's death, suffering girlfriend troubles and resenting the new man in his mother's life.

In this version, Hamlet's best friend Horatio becomes Jorge, his arguments with his girlfriend, Ophelia, take place over a cell phone and his father is whacked in the head with a golf club instead of poisoned in the ear. A competition between break dancers replaces the climactic sword duel.

"Shakespeare is timeless. He set the path for me, I just made it modern. It was already there, so I didn't have to do much," said McDuffy, 18, who drew inspiration from the anger he felt toward his mother's new boyfriend after his parents split up. In his case, though, the boyfriend became a friend.

During rehearsal less than a week before the show, the teenagers are a whirlwind of activity -- running their lines, practicing dramatic falls and cries after "fatal" stabbings, and dancing and spinning around the gym.

Dozens of students have contributed to the play since work began in April, said producer Angelita Moraga, a staff member at Alternatives.

Eight have speaking roles, portraying such roles as Hamlet's mother Gertrude (nicknamed Trudy) and her gossipy friend Pola, a take on the pompous Polonius from Shakespeare's play.

The students -- who attend several different Chicago high schools -- were trying to come up with a project to win a $5,000 grant from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority when McDuffy suggested his take on "Hamlet."

The idea was an instant hit among the teens, and 16-year-old Bianca Taylor -- who plays Ophelia -- wrote the proposal. After getting the grant, the group dissected Shakespeare's original text and saw a production of "King Lear" before beginning to write.

Taylor said she thinks the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is especially realistic. At one point, suspecting that she's cheating on him, Hamlet insults her by saying, "I didn't love you. I loved your body, which is not much."

Taylor said the exchange reminds her of guys her age who are afraid to acknowledge their true feelings.

"I totally get that. They care much more about their image than they do their love life," she said.

So far, only one performance of "Hamlet in the Hood" is scheduled. But Alternatives plans to produce a how-to kit for other groups interested in producing a version of the play, and many of the teens are hopeful they'll perform it again.

"They plan for Broadway pretty much," Moraga said. "They have big plans for this. They have stars in their eyes."