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Theater Review: ‘Hamlet’ — with little to no Shakespeare

“Jeffrey Hatcher’s Hamlet” is the playwright’s remembrance of how he came to direct Shakespeare’s epic tragedy in 1969 as a fifth-grader in Miss Kay Smith’s class in Steubenville, Ohio. That set-up immediately made me think of Albert Brooks’ faux promo for a television production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” enacted entirely by children on “Saturday Night Live” back in 1975.

However, the subtitle of this show is “A comedy with little to no Shakespeare,” because in Hatcher’s telling of his tale it is a love of theater and not the play itself that is the thing. Hatcher brought his engaging one-man show for a pair of performances in the Twin Ports on Monday — an early matinee at the Marshall School and an evening show at UMD’s Mainstage Theatre.

A series of cosmic coincidences lead young Jeffrey to suggest “Hamlet” for the class play as an alternative to “Jerry Breaks a Date,” a crossdressing comedy proposed by his classroom nemesis. However, he had yet to read the Classics Illustrated comic version (I still have my copy, too) that would serve as his script. As he strolls about the stage, Hatcher details the high (and low) points of the rehearsal process and the actual performance, replete with a menagerie of voices and constant comic asides.

I dare say Hatcher’s humorous recollections have embellished the precociousness of his young classmates, although I admit I would like to believe that his Ophelia, Cheryl Haggis, really did come up with “He hasn’t been very nice to me” to tell about her character in one sentence.

Then there is the convoluted backstory the young director comes up with that changes Hamlet’s avenging fratricide into an act of patricide, the question of exactly whose bodkin will be bare, an unexpected subplot involving blackmailing, a delayed allergic reaction to cattails that requires Ophelia to have a ventriloquist, and, rather touchingly, a pater ex machina to solve the mystery of the arras.

Last December, on this same stage UMD students (many of whom were in attendance) performed Hatcher’s “Compleat Female Stage Beauty.” He also co-wrote the stage adaptation of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which also was performed in Duluth last year.

After watching his show, Hatcher’s affinity for period pieces, such as his screenplays for “Casanova” and “The Duchess,” clearly can be traced back to this seminal childhood event, which exposed his self-diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder and his love for “writing Shakespeare.”

Lawrance Bernabo wrote and directed his first play, “Julius Caesar,” in the fourth grade. He read the narration while his classmates, wearing sheets as togas, acted out Caesar’s life. He allowed the actor playing the lead (Gary Hahn) one line. Of three words. In Latin.