This week, the University of Memphis Department of Theatre & Dance will debut a technology-fueled rendition of a Shakespearean classic in Hamlet: Fall of the Sparrow, which will begin its run this Thursday, February 13, with additional performances scheduled for February 14-15 and 20-22, Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. at the Mainstage Theatre.
This adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most-produced plays marks the Memphis debut of writer/director Holly L. Derr, The Department of Theatre & Dance’s newest Professor of Directing. Derr’s rendition of the Shakespearean classic adds a modern twist by setting the story inside of a video game and asking the audience to consider who is playing and who is being played.
“I’ve wanted to direct Hamlet for a long time and, for a long while, it’s been the next on my list of plays,” Derr said.
Derr is no stranger to the world of Shakespeare, with previous directing credits that include the likes of Macbeth, Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, and Cymbeline. However, this adaptation has proven to be more of a departure than her previous works.
“The adaptation idea grew from a conversation about the character Ophelia with Josh Brewer, a graduate student director who directed the 2019 production of Inherit the Wind and also served as dramaturge for Hamlet: Fall of the Sparrow,” Derr said. “The way that Shakespeare wrote Ophelia, she’s almost not fully human. She’s treated as more of an object and a vehicle for other people to achieve their own desires.”
Derr chose to portray Ophelia as an advanced artificial intelligence as a metaphor for her perceived subservience to the rest of the cast. This, among other tweaks to existing characters, offers the cast of 16 actors a chance to bring together past and future sentiments to create a wholly original performance.
“The aesthetic is a combination of Elizabethan and futuristic,” Derr said. “It’s very much modeled after the idea behind Steampunk, which involves mixing and melding different time periods to create something else entirely.”
While the “avatar” characters in Hamlet: Fall of the Sparrow will speak in Elizabethan dialect, the “players” controlling them will offer commentary in the style of contemporary speech.
“I think that the main things that the character of Hamlet struggles with are the concepts of free will and destiny,” Derr said. “Is this fated, or can he choose his own way? We decided to create a construct in which the characters wouldn’t actually know that they were ‘avatars’ being played by someone else.”
The world of Hamlet: Fall of the Sparrow will come to life through a series of projections similar to what players would be seeing on their own screens, with projection displays that accurately depict the video game trappings of Hamlet and friends.
“Our projection designer essentially had to learn how to become a video game designer when coming up with the look and feel of this production,” Derr said. “We have several little Easter eggs and sound cues for gamers who might recognize a particular reference.”
In addition to the cyberspace setting, Derr’s take on Hamlet further breaks from the mold through its emphasis on gender fluid casting.
“Scholars have always said that these are universal stories, and I like to test that in any way I can through directing,” Derr said. “Our Hamlet is a black, non-binary character. The idea is that if it’s true — as they’ve said for hundreds of years — that Hamlet represents the human experience and not a specifically male one, then anyone can be Hamlet.”
Admission for this show is $25 for adults, $20 for senior citizens and non-UofM students, $5 for high school students. UofM students receive a complimentary ticket. For more information, visit the 2019-2020 season website or contact Alice Berry, Director of Publicity and Promotion with the Department of Theatre & Dance.
Hamlet: Fall of the Sparrow – Cast & Production
Leah Mae Aldridge, Rachel Bennett, Elijah Bienz, Eboni Cain, Analyse Capodiferro, Jordan Cardell, Toby Davis, Al’Rasyah Fairley, Baker Haas, Tristan Hicks, Haleigh Johnson, Rachel Liske, Zyunia Palmer, Lane Pippin, Lance Raikes and Chloe Violet Tibbett
Directed by Holly L. Derr, assisted by Jamie Warrow
Scenic Design by Karen Arredondo
Lighting Design by Anthony Pellecchia
Projection Design by Tao Wang
Costume Design by Alexandra Filipovich
Sound Design by James Baker