Tarell Alvin McCraney has a major Shakespearean production in the works, a set-in-Haiti adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra. The big-buzz, big-budget show will bring artists from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Public Theater and GableStage together in a drama that will play Stratford-upon-Avon, New York and Miami starting in late fall.
But first things first: South Florida audiences can get a taste of McCraney’s way with the works of William Shakespeare when the playwright-director’s 90-minute adaptation of Hamlet opens at GableStage at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The young playwright and the National Theatre’s Bijan Sheibani first adapted Hamlet when the Miami-raised McCraney was International Playwright in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The idea was to pare down Shakespeare’s longest play to amp up its appeal to contemporary audiences.
After doing more work on the script for the GableStage production, McCraney says, “I think audiences who know the play will be thrilled by how succinct it is and how much they don’t miss. …Younger people expect to be lulled to sleep by the language. This really kicks off right away.”
Says Arielle Hoffman, a Shakespeare first timer who’s playing Hamlet’s pal Guildenstern, “We call it Hamlet, the Action Movie.”
What may surprise audiences about this take on the melancholy Danish prince who sets about avenging the murder of his father is that the language isn’t McCraney’s. It’s pure Shakespeare.
“Someone asked if I was looking for my voice to come through in this. Not at all. It’s about taking a story that’s important and getting a group of people to investigate it as best they can,” the playwright says.
McCraney, who grew up in Liberty City, received his high school training at Miami’s New World School of the Arts, did undergraduate studies at Chicago’s DePaul University and earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama.
His Brother/Sister Plays trilogy ( The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet), largely written while he was at Yale, have been produced by major theaters around the United States and in England, marking the award-winning McCraney as one of the country’s hottest and most promising young playwrights.
This season alone, his play Head of Passes will get an April world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre (where he is a company member), and in June, New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club will stage the American premiere of his Choir Boy, a play it commissioned.
His globetrotting life is hectic and artistically fulfilling, but bolstering the national theatrical profile of his hometown is a major part of his mission and dreams.
In casting Hamlet, McCraney mixed South Florida-based Shakespeare veterans like Peter Haig (Polonius) and James Samuel Randolph (Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father) with young talent like Hoffman (a recent high school graduate who is the daughter of Carbonell Award-winning actors Avi Hoffman and Laura Turnbull) and several New World students.
He also brought some key actors home to Miami: Edgar Sanchez to play Hamlet, Alana Arenas as Gertrude, recent Southern Methodist University grad Mimi Davila as Ophelia and Ryan George as Laertes and Rosencrantz. Those artists and Fort Pierce native Dylan Kammerer (Horatio) have built careers elsewhere but wanted to come back to do Hamlet with McCraney.
Such working homecomings are part of McCraney’s long-range plan.
“I want to show what Miami has wrought and what Miami can make,” he says.
With a longer-than-usual rehearsal period of 4 1/2 weeks (though he notes that productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company rehearse for two months), McCraney has spent time shaping his diverse cast into a company that can deliver his vision.
He wants this Hamlet to seem as if a group of actors in the 1920s or ’30s arrived at GableStage’s home, the Biltmore Hotel, found some costumes and put on this classic play in a place known to have its own ghosts. To get the performers working as a team, he had them play theater games, do monologues for each other and push themselves physically.
Jokes McCraney, “They have a common enemy: me.”
But the actors, veterans and newcomers alike, are enjoying the process and impressed by the way McCraney and Sheibani refashioned the “bad” First Quarto (the first and shortest version of Hamlet, which lacks the famous speeches added to the Second Quarto and First Folio) into a dynamic piece of theater.
“This is a fast-moving, lean and mean Hamlet,” says Randolph.
“It doesn’t give the audience the opportunity to sit back,” Kammerer says. “Everything in the text is essential. Everything Tarell could mine is there.”
For Haig, who first performed Hamlet in 1964, McCraney’s fidelity to Shakespeare’s language is key.
“Tarell begins with the text. That’s a relief for some of us who have been in cockamamie Shakespearean productions,” he says.
Sanchez, whose credits include Shakespeare plays at Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, is getting to play a dream role as Hamlet.
“This really takes every single part of you. I’ve been reading the play since I was 13. It’s a role I’ve been preparing for all my life. I’ve been doing the ‘Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave’ speech as a monologue since I was 18,” he says.
The actor did a vast amount of research and reading, as actors about to play Hamlet do. But, he says, “I realized that once I got into this room, all that would remain is the story we’re trying to tell” about a young man out to not just avenge his father but to set the world right.
For McCraney, the GableStage Hamlet and his still-in-progress Antony and Cleopatra are almost a kind of curriculum.
“This is teaching me the first steps in a longer process,” he says. “Every time you do Shakespeare, you learn how to do it better.”