In rehearsal for “Our American Hamlet,” Jake Broder performs double duty. One minute he’s responding to director Steve Maler’s suggestion about how to deliver a sword to another character onstage, and the next he’s answering a question about rewriting dialogue at the top of an important scene. Broder, you see, is both playwright and an actor in the world premiere of “Our American Hamlet,” which runs Thursday through April 2 at Babson College’s Sorenson Center for the Arts.
“Our American Hamlet” focuses on the Booths, a renowned 19th-century theatrical family led by Junius Booth and his son, Edwin, whose fame was eclipsed when Edwin’s brother John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln. Broder’s drama is set six months after the assassination, when Edwin is trying to reclaim his family’s reputation with a production of “Hamlet” in New York.
“I play the narrator, so I’m outside the frame of the play,” says Broder, who has a recurring role on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” “I am Edwin’s friend rather than a member of the family. I think that makes it easier for me to be a part of this production.”
Maler, who is directing “Our American Hamlet” at the Sorenson Center for the Arts at Babson College in Wellesley, says having the writer in the room is an asset. “I spend a lot of time working with dead playwrights,” Maler says with a laugh, “so it’s nice to be able to ask Jake questions about a moment or intention.”
But Maler says he was also attracted to the script because its structure is so theatrical.
“ ‘Our American Hamlet’ fuses the story of fathers and sons with scenes from ‘Hamlet,’ the historical moment of Lincoln’s assassination, and our own feelings of political division today,” Maler says. “Each story is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that comes together in unexpected ways.”
The play opens in the empty New York theater just as Edwin Booth’s “Hamlet” is about to open. But the show is threatened by an angry mob that sees the production by the brother of a murderer as an insult to Lincoln’s memory. While Booth’s friend, Adam Badeau (Broder), tries to convince him to abandon the production, the conversation leads them into the complicated family dynamics that drove the acting dynasty, suggests parallels with the betrayal and uncertainty within Hamlet’s family, and explores the notion of what makes individuals memorable.
Maler says Broder’s experience as an actor helps him create believable characters, as well as an action-driven story that is about more than a moment in American history.
“What we love about Shakespeare’s plays is that they are always personal and political,” says Maler. “We see ourselves and our own family in these stories of kings and wars and political transition.”
Broder says that ability to place a story in a bigger context is what makes theater meaningful.
“I didn’t write this as a story about Shakespeare and the Booths,” he says. “I wrote it when I was thinking about school shootings, the election, and our celebration of assassins over artists. I hate to be preachy, so I’m trying to set up the situation, offer the polarities, and let audiences have the conversation about what’s important to us and how we bridge these chasms that divide us.”
Paul Lynde personified
TV sitcom actor Paul Lynde had a delivery as recognizable in the ’60s and ’70s as Christopher Walken’s is today, says actor Gene Dante.
“The sound of his voice was so distinctive, that when he combined it with his snide wit, it became a kind of trap he couldn’t escape,” Dante says. “I became fascinated by who this man was when he wasn’t performing.”
“God Save the Queen — Paul Lynde ’79” (Machine nightclub, Friday and Saturday) is Dante’s one-man show featuring Lynde at a pivotal moment in his life, when he stepped away from his popular spot as the “center square” in “Hollywood Squares” to re-evaluate his options.
“The play is a reflection of a time when you could be as gay as he was and absolutely could not publicly acknowledge it,” Dante says. “Paul Lynde’s contemporaries included Rip Taylor, Jonathan Harris, Charles Nelson Reilly and Liberace, men who were so flamboyant onstage that they were not considered for roles outside of those caricatures.”
“God Save the Queen,” co-written by Dante and director Lisa Boucher Hartman, is set in Lynde’s living room. The script, says Dante, consists mostly of Lynde’s own words, but he and Hartman took liberties “with the chronology and imagined all these funny, salacious, and bitchy comments happened in 90 minutes.”
“God Save the Queen” offers a moment of redemption for a man who never had the chance to tell his side of the story, Dante says.
“Paul Lynde could be very cutting to his friends, especially when he was drinking,” says Dante, who is presenting the show with the permission of Lynde’s estate. “He never had the level of success he felt he had the potential for,” he says. “This show offers a chance for him to look back on his life, and take stock.”
For tickets, go to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2586729.
Front Porch’s first foray
The new Front Porch Arts Collective, founded by Maurice Parent, Dawn Simmons, and Keith Mascoll, will present its first production, a reading of “The House That Will Not Stand,” by Marcus Gardley, Sunday at Central Square Theater in Cambridge. The Front Porch Arts Collective is dedicated to “examining the interactions between race, economics, gender and sexuality from a Black and Brown perspective.” Tickets are free. Reservations are recommended. For more information, go to www.centralsquaretheater.org/events.
OUR AMERICAN HAMLET
Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At Sorenson Center for the Arts, Babson College, Wellesley, March 23-April 2. Tickets $25-$60, 866-811-4111, www.commshakes.orgTerry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.