Eduardo Montalvo, David Tinsley, and Jade Johnson in Revenge of a King. Photo by Laura Durant.
Messing with Shakespeare can be a very good thing. It introduces audiences to a variety of genres and styles of theater that they might have overlooked or avoided in the past. The cross-pollination runs in all directions; for example, in the current Black Theatre Troupe/BlackPoet Ventures co-production, Revenge of a King, it's impossible to say who's getting more out of the Hamlet-centric, hip-hop styled show -- people who are being introduced to Shakespeare through the relevant avenues of contemporary music, dance, graffiti art, and performance poetry; big ol' Shakespeare geeks like me who get to appreciate the old messages expressed in newer genres; or people like my pal the dance/drama teacher and her son, who are familiar with both frames of reference and are simply delighted to see so many of their personal favorite things on stage together ("Hey! You got chocolate in my peanut butter!").
The show also crosses generational and cultural lines, speaking to the drives of passion and integrity that war inside people of every age, noting the toll of a violent culture on parents and children alike, calling out the antisocial messages of some urban role models, and presenting alternative objectives for community action. It's very cool.
Jeff Lemire's scenic design is a realistically gritty two-level brick-faced unit adorned with appropriate graffiti messages by Ernie Perazza and the staff of Just Blaze. Michael J. Eddy's lighting design tracks and flashes on the painted words now and then, and rather than being corny, it reinforces the themes of the story from moment to moment, the way production elements are supposed to.
Upstairs, Jason Yee and Divine inject mood and commentary from a broadcast/DJ booth, and the whole set is constructed far downstage to heighten the sense of urgency in the unfolding events.
One of the interesting things about the original live music in the show (and there's a bunch; it's basically a musical) is that the male performers tend to spit rhymes (they are diverse and character-focused pieces) while the women, in their solos, are singing melodies -- which is traditional, I realize. Shakespeare was good (usually) at letting his female characters express some of the frustration of their circumscribed social role, and the songs in Revenge of a King, in addition to being beautifully and poignantly performed, serve that function by repeating simple phrases over and over at an increasing emotional pitch.
It's a style that took me a while to get used to, but it worked its magic in the end by deepening my engagement in the visceral experience of the play. Hamlet is seen as (among other things) a portrait of a man paralyzed by intellectual, civilized constraints, but Revenge of a King takes the very natural step of digging under the surface to identify the stifling circumstances that keep the characters from breaking out of their tragic spirals.
Revenge of a King runs through Sunday, January 25, at Playhouse on the Park, 1850 North Central Avenue. Admission is $23; a discount is available for family groups to attend the Target Family Matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday, January 24. Order tickets here or call 602-254-2151.