SPOILER ALERT: This column contains key plot points for a 420-year-old play that’s been made into a movie more than 50 times.

I know there may be people who aren’t familiar with every moment of “Hamlet,” William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about betrayal, political corruption, twisted family dynamics and madness. But it is one of the playwright’s most produced works, so even people who’ve never seen it probably know the basics: A morose Danish prince, spurred on by the ghost of his murdered father, seeks to avenge that act against his mother and uncle, who are now married. (SPOILER!) Much intrigue, stabbings and poisonings follow.

Still, Eleanor Holdridge, the director of the current production playing at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company through May 21, thinks the play holds relevance and even surprises.

“I think we still have questions about our existence that haven’t really changed,” said Holdridge, professor and chair of the drama department at Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University, who grew up in Baltimore’s Dickeyville neighborhood and in Owings Mills. “My goal is to make the language sound earthy and filled with meaning.”

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CSC’s production maintains the plot while cutting almost two hours from the usual four-hour running time. The actors are in modern dress without “bad British accents,” Holdridge said, noting that she believes Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be contemporary at the time they were written. To stay contemporary, it makes sense, then, that a modern production would be set in current times.

“Even though he wrote them [back] then, he was thinking of them as a play for now. I want us to recognize ourselves in the people, and not in an old-timey play for people in pumpkin pants and hose,” Holdridge said.

Indeed, CHS’s Hamlet (Vince Eisenson) is as compelling in a dark suit as he would have been in those hose, while the costuming for Queen Gertrude (Lesley Malin) reminded me at times of another political wife, Claire Underwood of “House of Cards.” The cuts made the action snappier while maintaining all the excitement of the myriad onstage deaths. My date for the evening, my 9-year-old son and Shakespeare newbie, perked up right around the first onstage killing. (“Swords!” he whispered excitedly.)

The cast of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s “Hamlet.” (Kiirstn Pagan)

Holdridge, too, fell in love with the words of the Bard as a kid. She’s the daughter of Barbara Holdridge, cofounder of Caedmon Records, which produced spoken-word recordings of poetry and theater, including Shakespeare. “She used a lot of British actors, so I grew up in recording studios with famous British people,” Eleanor Holdridge said. “I would listen to them all the time, which is why I developed a director’s imagination, imagining your way to a play. I would listen to the records and imagine what was happening.”

Integral to the power of Shakespeare’s work is his language. In fact, Holdridge said, “he created the language. There are so many phrases we use today that come from his plays, like ‘in my mind’s eye’ or ‘more matter with less art.’ We who speak English and think in English are speaking that language that Shakespeare pretty much created.”

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She made her her edits to the play by focusing on the parts about “Hamlet’s experience and his memory. The questions he’s trying to grapple with are, ‘How do you live in this world? How do you act? How do you grapple with something like the killing of your dad?’ I wanted to cleave to the story.”

Holdridge said that to some, “Hamlet’s tragic flaw is that he doesn’t act, that he spends the first part of the play trying to figure out why he feels so bad, and that if what the ghost says is true, how can he in good conscience get revenge?” That lack of action lent itself so well to my favorite “Hamlet,” Michael Almereyda’s 2000 version with Ethan Hawke in prime brooding slacker mode, delivering the “To be or not to be” speech as an inner monologue while he wanders around a Blockbuster store.

Hamlet can sometimes come across as whiney or spoiled, but Holdridge thinks the seriousness with which he deals with his kingdom’s intrigue is proof of his character. “The play would be really short if he wasn’t an ethical person,” she said. “He makes mistakes, like [SPOILER!] he kills his girlfriend’s father. But the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene with Ophelia is that he doesn’t want her to be collateral damage. He wants to save her, which is why he breaks up with her.”

The world is “a harder place to live right now, but we still have to find the joy of life, and the acceptance of that,” she said. “We have to grapple with that, and appreciate being human.”

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop... 

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