METROWEST DAILY NEWS – Hamlet has been portrayed as a textbook schizophrenic, the patron saint of procrastination, a goth hero and a female.
Now he’s Humphrey Bogart.
Framingham playwright John Minigan offers up a Melancholy Dane who looks a lot less like the Prince of Denmark and a lot more like Sam Spade.
Minigan smashed together two of his passions – Shakespeare and the noir genre – and the result is (no surprise) something starkly original, “Noir Hamlet,” running June 14-30 at the Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
What kind of a fever dream produced this idea?
“I wrote a short noir comedy called ‘The Maltese Walter,’ and one of the actors who performed in it said I should expand it into a full-length play,” he remembers. “I said, ‘I can’t: You die on page nine.’ ”
That’s when Shakespeare leaked back into his imagination.
“I sometimes write riffs on Shakespeare,” says Minigan, “and of all his work, ‘Hamlet’ seemed like the best fit with the noir style. There’s a mystery at the heart of the story. There’s the idea of wrestling with the choice of revenge or justice. And there are the moral twists. ‘Hamlet’ and noir just seemed to fit together.”
Then the idea passed the biggest litmus test of all: It made Minigan laugh.
“Every time I thought of one of those plot twists,” he says, “the premise amused me a little bit more.”
Remember how Horatio sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father at the start of the play? Well, scratch that. This “Hamlet” begins when Hamlet’s secretary hears a saxophone playing on the roof at night.
Hamlet has taken over his father’s business, the Elsinore Detective Agency, and he’s got everything but a case. Now he’s out to solve the Mystery of the Saxophone at Night. It’s not long before he sees his father’s ghost, and the play becomes a murder mystery: Who killed Hamlet’s father?
This Centastage production marks the world premiere of the play, but there was also a public reading of it, and the playwright was heartened by the response.
“There was lots of laughter,” he says, “which was great to hear.”
He’s done some rewriting since then, primarily to beef up the story. But it’s still only about one-third the length of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: It’s an 80-minute one-act.
That, of course, means lots of cutting. Fortinbras? Gone. Horatio? Out. Laertes? Vanquished. “To be or not to be?” Not to be.
Yes, Minigan ruthlessly axed the most famous line in literature.
“I kept trying to find the right place for it,” he says, “but it just felt like I was trying to force it in.”
He says there’s very little of Shakespeare’s poetry in the play. Instead, Minigan focused on creating the distinct sound of noir patter, made famous in some of the genre’s classic films, including “The Big Sleep,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca.”
He embraced the challenge.
“I love the rhythms of noir,” says Minigan. “There’s a musicality to the dialog. And these actors really get it.”
Minigan has enjoyed some impressive successes as a playwright. His plays have been workshopped and developed at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, the New American Playwrights Project and the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. His play “Breaking the Shakespeare Code” was nominated for a 2014 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script, and his work is published by Dramatists Play Service.
And he’s about to get a lot more time to write. He’ll retire this month from Weston High School, where he taught for 31 years.
In that job, he was on the front lines of teaching kids Shakespeare, and he offers a cautiously optimistic view: Not all hope is lost.
One way he measures students’ willingness to engage with Shakespeare is by the popularity of his class. He says about a third of the seniors chose his Shakespeare class this year, even though there were other electives that required no knowledge of a “brabble,” a “bilberry” or a “bodkin.”
Perhaps some of his students will pop up in the audience of “Noir Hamlet.” If so, they may wonder, “What happened to Mr. Minigan?”
The plot they’ll watch has only a passing similarity to the “Hamlet” they may have studied in his class, and Minigan thinks that’s a good thing: It’ll keep patrons on their toes.
“It’s interesting because it’s not the exact same plot as ‘Hamlet,’ ” he says. “The plot has some different twists. If the audience is expecting the ‘Hamlet’ story, then they’ll be surprised.”
And woe to anyone who thinks they know which characters are the heroes and which ones are the villains in this “Hamlet.”
“It’s noir,” says Minigan, “so no one can be trusted.”
WHEN: June 14-30
WHERE: Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston
INFO: 617-933-8600; bostontheatrescene.com
By Alexander Stevens