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Interest in the Real Thing Results : Slapstick ‘Hamlet’ Proves Success

Times Staff Writer

Purists might argue that 70 minutes of stripped-down, compressed, rewritten, slam-bang, slapstick do not Shakespeare make. But the title was “Hamlet” and the characters were Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern and the familiar crowd at the court of the Danish king, so it must have been Shakespeare.

More important, the audience ate it up--all 150 of them from Jordan High School in South-Central Los Angeles. The group was bused Thursday to the Los Angeles Actors Theatre/Los Angeles Theatre Center’s soon-to-be abandoned home just off the Hollywood Freeway.

What with plenty of broadly drawn sex and swordplay, as well as a slice of badly muddled family life, this “Hamlet” was a big hit.

There was plenty of applause and laughs and well-intentioned promises to go back to school and read the real thing.

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Students Interested

“I liked it a lot, the acting and everything, and I will read the play,” Evette Rodriquez, 15, said.

“The characters were interesting,” Pamela Sessions, 16, said. “I’ll read it, really.”

Which is the whole idea of what has been going on at the theater for the last month or so. About 1,000 students from the Los Angeles Unified School District have been driven to Hollywood to see the avant-garde production, written and directed by Charles Marowitz and starring Franklyn Seales, an actor whom many of the students know from his work on TV’s “Silver Spoons.”

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In fact, that was the first question the young people asked when Hamlet and the other characters took their curtain call and sat down on stage for a short question-and-answer session.

Seales confessed he was, indeed, the TV actor but enjoyed just as much doing “Hamlet.” The play, he told the students, was not quite the original but an attempt by the theater to “experiment; to have some fun with it.”

One Jordan student asked the cast, “Did you all really kiss?” And the thespians admitted that what they were doing on stage did bear more than a rough resemblance to the real thing.

Another student wanted to know just what was the source of Ophelia’s distress.

She wanted Hamlet’s love, explained Rhonda Aldrich, the actress playing the role, and instead, “Hamlet rapes me, Polonious died, it’s just too much!”

The students from Jordan seemed to understand, smiling and applauding.

The actors and people behind the scenes seemed just as happy as the high schoolers and their teachers.

Keren Goldberg, special projects manager for the theater, said she and a teacher, Elaine Kondo-McEwan, have drawn up study guides for " Hamlet,” as well as Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” and Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena,” both of which will be presented when the group moves to its new quarters in the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles next September.

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Relating to Classroom

Goldberg said the school district’s teachers appreciate the program because they can use it as a jumping-off point for classroom studies in all sorts of areas--not just theater and literature, but history and language as well.

Bill Bushnell, the group’s producing director, told the students that the restructured and shortened “Hamlet” was a sample of what his theater group does.

“We experiment a lot with the classics,” Bushnell said. “So they’re not dull and boring.”

And later, happy with the reaction from the Jordan students, Bushnell said that theater for young people, who would not normally see much of it, does not necessarily have to be a fast-paced, abridged “Hamlet.” It can be Chekhov and Fugard, as well.

“I don’t think there’s anything that won’t work with kids,” he said.


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