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    Stages | Terry Byrne

    Something’s rotten in LA, but a hard-boiled Hamlet is on the case

    Paul Melendy as Hamlet in “Noir Hamlet.”
    Joseph Antoun
    Paul Melendy as Hamlet in “Noir Hamlet.”

    Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark as a wise-cracking private eye? His pal Horatio morphed into a complicated gal Friday named Rae Chio? The rotten state of Denmark transformed into the City of Angels circa 1949?

    “Noir Hamlet,” presented by Centastage at the Boston Center for the Arts Black Box through June 30, combines playwright John Minigan’s twin fascinations with Shakespeare, whom he taught at Weston High School, and the noir genre.

    “I wrote a 10-minute play in the noir style, and Paul Melendy [a Boston actor who stars as Hamlet in this production] suggested I turn it into a full-length play, and I thought, ‘Well, that might work for ‘Hamlet.’ ”

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    Although Minigan follows the outline of Shakespeare’s tragedy, he adds some plot twists of his own, along with the romantic interest, Rae Chio. The result is a funny and clever reimagining of the tale of the Melancholy Dane, filtered through the particular noir slang.

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    “It was important to me that I internalize the rhythms of the language,” Minigan says, “so I watched a lot of noir films and studied a glossary of noir terms.”

    Joe Antoun, who is directing the production, has served as the artistic director of Centastage since 1991, producing only world premieres written by New England playwrights. Antoun also leads the playwriting group Write On!, where local playwrights and actors read works in development.

    “John began attending our writing group,” says Antoun, “and he is prolific and generous and charming. Centastage only rarely stages full productions [the last was three years ago], but we all felt this script is incredibly funny and smart. It avoids becoming a gimmick because John touches on the high points of ‘Hamlet,’ but then changes the plot to make it unique.”

    Minigan’s work has been gaining increasing traction lately, earning an Elliot Norton Award nomination for “Breaking the Shakespeare Code” in 2014, while “Queen of Sad Mischance” was named a finalist in this year’s O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference. Several of his 10-minute plays have had productions and readings across the country and around the world.

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    “It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to produce a script that’s really ready for audiences to see and respond to,” says Antoun.

    Kuhn bonds with ‘Steel Magnolias’

    Although best known for her glorious vocals in everything from Disney’s “Pocahontas” to the recent Broadway productions of “Fun Home” and the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” four-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn has spent her career balancing musicals with TV, film, and theater. She is currently starring at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis through June 23 in “Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s heartwarming story of friendships that endure through all of life’s joys and sorrows. (Tickets begin at $20; 508-385-3911, www.capeplayhouse.com.)

    “Telling a story is telling a story, with or without music,” Kuhn says over the phone during a rehearsal break. “A play like ‘Othello’ requires different muscles than ‘Les Miz,’ but the focus is always on figuring out the best way to bring a character to life and tell the audience a story.”

    “Steel Magnolias,” which was made into a 1989 film with Sally Field, Dolly Parton, and Julia Roberts, is set in a Louisiana beauty parlor where six women meet for their weekly “wash and set.” While the women represent a range of personalities, including the town gossip, curmudgeon, newbie, and former first lady of the town, they evolve into complex characters as they deal with a crisis confronting one of the group. Kuhn plays M’Lynn, the mother of Shelby, a young woman whose wedding preparations open the play.

    “When you start rehearsals you’re focused on understanding your place in the play,” says Kuhn. “My character and her daughter are central to the action, but as we get deeper into it, I’m enjoying the rich relationships these women have with each other.”

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    Although the film was criticized for its sentimentality, Kuhn says it’s up to the ensemble to play it for real.

    “The play is based on real people and comes from a deep truth,” she says. “But even though the story is sad, the friendships forged in the hair salon are funny, and challenging. We’re having a really good time.”

    If you can’t get enough of Kuhn onstage, or just need to hear her sing, she will return to the Cape to perform her cabaret act at the Art House in Provincetown July 15-16, accompanied by Seth Rudetsky.

    The original divas

    Long before Lady Gaga or Cher, female performers, especially opera singers, used their flair for the dramatic to do much more than sell tickets.

    “DIVAS,” a new play by Laura Neill, brings together nine opera stars from the 1700s to the 1900s who meet in the afterlife. The all-female production is produced by OperaHub, a group dedicated to innovative approaches to opera, in collaboration with DIVA Museum, and will be presented June 21-30 in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. (Tickets $10-$55, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com.)

    “DIVAS” features selections that became each singer’s showstopper, while telling the stories of these women, who made history not only with their vocal prowess but through their efforts to fight racism and gain more social freedoms and equality for women. While only one of the nine singers, Jenny Lind, might be familiar to audiences, during their eras each had won enormous acclaim while also setting the tone for fashion with their lavish costumes, and their insistence on top billing and financial independence.

    The inspiration for “DIVAS” came from artist Kathleen McDermott’s “Haute History” website and DIVAS museum. A fashion history and women’s history author and instructor at Mass College of Art, she became drawn into the world of divas through their fashions, and created “DIVA Museum: How Opera Singers Changed the World, 1700-1920,” a multimedia art and education platform.

    NOIR HAMLET

    Presented by Centastage. At the Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, June 14-30. Tickets: $20-$30, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com

    Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.