Hip-hop fused with 'Hamlet'

Few playgoers attend "Hamlet" expecting to hear the phrase, "hip-hop and you don't stop."

But there it is in Artistic Director Bill Rauch's version of the play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season.

And it's perfectly natural to fuse hip-hop with Hamlet, by adding "sick hooks" to the iambic pentameter, said Claudia Alick, hip-hop dramaturge for the play and curator and producer of the festival's musical Green Shows.

The festival is simply taking a page from the Bard himself, by mixing concepts and genres, she said.

"Shakespeare sampled all the time," Alick said. "He was one of the original DJs."

In Rauch's version of the play, running in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 30, the traveling theater troupe break-dances, beat-boxes and creeps before the king.

"They're street artists," Alick said, "but they have the ability to bring the king to his knees."

The four players, old friends of Hamlet's, arrive in act two and start beat-boxing almost immediately.

In the following act, they turn the king's play into a hip-hop concert, DJ and turntables included. Lights flash and the players bust moves choreographed by hip-hop artist Rokafella.

"This is coming from a very real place, an authentic place in hip-hop, but it's also Shakespeare," Alick said.

Traditionally, the theatre troupe members are played by older actors, and often convey their "play within a play" solemnly.

Rauch wanted to upturn tradition, without losing the gravitas of the scene, Alick said.

"He wanted to play up that generational divide in Hamlet," she said. "But we knew it had to be completely integrated into the show."

The scene is represents a turning point in the play — as Hamlet watches the king's reaction, to discern if he killed Hamlet's father — so it's important to get it right, Alick said. The goal was to add hip-hop to the Shakespeare, without diluting either, she said.

"It's exciting because I think we've been able to bridge a cultural gap, and I think the work we're doing elevates both forms," she said.

The festival has incorporated elements of hip-hop in previously productions, but had never featured an entire scene of the modern music, Alick said.

"This is the first time we've done it really intentionally," she said.

In order to help integrate the players' scenes into the rest of the performance, composer and sound designer Paul James Prendergast added hip-hop beats to other scenes. Ophelia also sings part of the players' song in an earlier scene.

"You hear the music repeated throughout the play," Alick said.

Audiences have responded favorably to Rauch's take on Hamlet, Alick said.

"I've been refreshingly surprised by the way the audience gets into it," she said. "They're swaying in their seats, making noises, saying, 'Yeah,' and clapping their hands in the air."

In some ways, iambic pentameter — a rhyming, lyrical verse — lends itself easily to hip-hop. But Shakespeare's verse is written in five beat lines, where as hip-hop is usually based on sets of four beats.

"There were a few places where we flipped a couple of words to make them stronger," Alick said. "We also cut for content and time."

Alick has worked at the festival for three years, serving as the associate producer of community.

Previously, she was involved in the hip-hop and theater community in New York City. She participated in HBO's Def Poetry Jam and worked with rapper Kanye West on his second album.

For the players' scenes, Rauch hired actors who were already well versed in the hip-hop genre, Alick said.

"It's a super hard skill set to be able to do Shakespeare add hip-hop at the same time," she said. "You've got to have chops."

Ramiz Monsef, the player king, supports underground hip-hop acts and is a member of the hip-hop group Three Blind Mice.

Khatt Taylor, the player queen, is a spoken word poet.

A Southern Oregon University graduate, Orion Bradshaw, serves as the player equivalent of Hamlet, and is an accomplished dancer.

Christopher Livingston, the player DJ, was a fan of hip-hop music and learned to mix it in real time on stage. Although the music is prerecorded, Livingston ad-libs to the music and repeats important words other actors say, using a style called doubling.

"It should be a little bit different each time," Alick said.

As the player's concert begins, Livingston says, "Denmark, are you ready?"

But what he's really asking is, "Playgoers, are you ready?"

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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