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Judging Hamlet

New Muses’ take on Shakespeare’s famous play delves into the culture of public scrutiny

In a dress rehearsal, New Muses Theatre Company prepares to present Hamlet. Photo credit: New Muses Theatre Company

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If William Shakespeare's plays have engaged in a competition to see which of them will end up with the most adaptations and re-imaginings, I think it's safe to say that the two works that have come out on top are Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. The latter makes an awful lot of sense, with its relatively simple story of two lovers separated by warring factions that aim to keep them apart; Hamlet, though, has more of a squirrelly narrative involving royal intrigue, murder, father-son dynamics, and madness. Still, the permeability of Shakespeare's works has allowed even Hamlet to be done in any number of ways -- Disney proved this years ago by casting the story with lions. The inherent truths and compelling story of Hamlet have allowed it to retain its relevance for 400 years.

Starting this week, the New Muses Theatre Company is staging their version of Hamlet, adapted, directed by, and starring Niclas Olson in the title role. Olson, the managing artistic director of New Muses, is no stranger to directing shows in which he also stars -- as he did in his quite good 2017 production of Frankenstein. Performed in the cozy confines of Dukesbay's black box theater, this Hamlet is approaching the story from the modern view of everybody living their lives in public.

"I was really interested in how Hamlet functions in this realm of public scrutiny," said Olson. "The family -- Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, and everyone around them -- is dealing with this huge political upheaval of a new person taking the throne. One of the things I've thought a lot about, with the character of Hamlet, specifically, is there's a lot of talk of him going mad, but in many ways, he's more of a rich kid behaving badly. I was thinking about the British royal family, and the level of scrutiny they're under, and how they deal with it. And obviously, with the fictional characters in Hamlet, with a similar sort of public awareness around them -- how does that affect their lives, and lead to the events we see take place?

"Almost all of the characters have a moment where all of a sudden they're in private, and you really do see a difference," said Olson. "Hamlet is suddenly in private, and looking at whether he's cowardly or living up to what he needs to be; Claudius is in private and is wracked with guilt over what he's done, and he isn't sure that he's made the right choice for his country. That's the lens I'm looking at it through."

Olson's Hamlet is rounded out by an extensive cast, including Juan Aleman II, Victoria Ashley, Dayna Childs, Cassie Jo Fastabend, Xander Layden, Angela Parisotto, and Mason Quinn. Dukesbay Theatre's modest set-up ensures that the audience is up close and personal with the actors, at all times, so it's quite possible that this may be your most intimate exposure to a production of Hamlet. Nothing's quite so thrilling as being thrust straight into the world of a play.

Hamlet, 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Jan. 27, Dukesbay Theatre, 508 6th Ave. #10, Tacoma, $10-$15, 253.254.5530,

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