During a break between rehearsing scenes for Overland High School's fall play on a recent Monday afternoon, a group of teenage actors took a few minutes to discuss internet culture.
In certain ways, their discussion was one that could easily be expected from any modern, internet-savvy high-school students. They swapped stories about the funniest memes they'd seen in the past week, exchanging laughs over particularly incisive visual gags that popped up on their feeds. In other respects, however, their exchange seemed to clash with the casual, disposable and sometimes inane culture of the internet.
All of the memes that popped up in the students' conversation were tied to William Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. Every spin on well-worn internet memes that the young actors discussed had to do with the characters, themes and plots of "Hamlet."
It's no wonder that one of Western literature's greatest tragedies was on these students' minds. Overland High School's theater department is staging its own spin on "Hamlet" for a single weekend of performances, from Thursday, Nov. 8 to Saturday, Nov. 10. The production comes on the heels of another ambitious production by the school, a staging of the drama "Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry.
While the Overland production of "Hamlet" is somewhat abridged (the Overland production runs at a little over two hours as opposed to the standard four), these high school students haven't shied away from tackling the Bard of Avon's original Elizabethan language or references. Indeed, Overland Fine Arts Coordinator Abigail Cate, who selected the show as the fall play and is directing the production, wanted to make sure the students had access to all the unedited complexity, depth and detail that makes "Hamlet" one of Shakespeare's greatest artistic accomplishments.
"We've done a lot of comedy on the Overland stage. They haven't had a lot of drama experience," Cait said, explaining that the school's drama department has tackled lighter Shakespearean fare like "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the past. "That was one of the reasons I said, 'These kids need something meaty; let's give them something to dig their teeth into.'
"How about the hardest play ever written?" she added. "I knew they could do it, because these kids are amazing."
Acclimating to dialogue and intrigue written more than 400 years ago was hardly simple for the show's cast. The students playing the show's leading roles had little to no experience with "Hamlet" specifically and Shakespeare in general, but that didn't stop every member of the cast and crew from jumping into their roles with dedication, insight and enthusiasm.
"Now that I've really gone through it and learned every little in and out of the script, I've gained a whole new appreciation for this piece," said Asher Wolf, the 16-year-old Overland junior who's playing the show's titular role, the doomed Prince of Denmark who must decide how to avenge the death of his father. "Shakespeare wrote 'Hamlet' to be relevant, and even now, it still is. I think that was the biggest takeaway, that a piece written hundreds of years ago is still connecting to me a lot."
Wolf wasn't the only student actor to find immediacy and relevance in the script. Student actors offered parallels between Shakespeare's text and issues from their own lives. They'd found important lessons about love, loss and mental health; they made parallels between the dangerous, intrigue-laden court of Elsinore with the pressures of finding a healthy and happy path through high school.
"It's really quite powerful. It's definitely is a show for teenagers. The struggle of Hamlet trying to figure out who he is, the relationship with his parents, what his goals in life are, who he wants to align himself with, who he trusts – I think that's all relevant," said 17-year-old junior Travis Deane, who's playing the role of Polonius. "In high school, you'll find that there are people who aren't quite who they say they are. For Hamlet to go through that whole process … I think you can learn a lot from it."
Cassidee Raffa, 17, who's playing the role of Ophelia, found a similar kind of resonance in tackling the role of a young woman who fights a life-or-death battle for mental health. Jackson Ross, 17, marveled at the intellectual depth of Shakespeare's words in preparing for the role of Laertes, even as he found relatable motivations for his character.
The actors' ability to digest and memorize the material has thoroughly impressed Cait, who's found new facets to appreciate about the drama in leading this group of young actors through the process of staging it.
"I am delighted and surprised every day by the students' level of insight. They've tackled this show with such professionalism and intelligence," she said. "Every single time you go through this text, you find something new."
For Wolf, who's navigating the play for the first time in its lead role, one the most profound impacts of Shakespeare's work was its underlying messages about forgiveness and acceptance. Wolf found a heartening message in one of Western literature's darkest tragedies, one that carries a great amount of meaning and weight in our contemporary age. It's a takeaway that goes much deeper than memorizing the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
"I think in the end, the main thing that you should take away from 'Hamlet' is to live your life to the best of your ability and to let bygones be bygones … The message is to take care of yourself, and that mental problems aren't something that anyone gets to escape," Wolf said. "It's about knowing that it's OK to be sad sometimes."
For those who may be dubious about a group of teenagers' ability to understand and properly convey the deeper messages of the show, Wolf had a bit of a reality check.
"Some people don't realize how much high schoolers go through," he said. "They don't realize how much we're willing to work and prove ourselves to others."