Skullduggery: The Story Before Hamlet

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” – Polonius

Los Angeles playwright and composer Michael Shaw Fisher of Orgasmico Theatre Company has designed a new musical: a fill-in-the-blanks prequel to one of Shakepeare’s most popularly referenced plays, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  The show is now in extension at Sacred Fools Theater Company through November 19th.

Mostly written as a fan-fiction,  Skullduggery  resonates with an uncanny believability, adding a humanizing, three-dimensional view to the familiar characters in Hamlet.  It also answers a 400-years-old question of why this might have all come about in the first place.

A departure from his previous hard core, camp rock, Fisher’s new operetta is delicately composed in a modern, non-repetitive through style, intentionally quiet and soft . The result is a uniquely imaginative chronicle-like musical event.

Footlights  recently caught up with the creatives of this show.

Can you explain the intention of Skullduggery’s musical style?

Fisher: When I wrote this I was doing Exorcistic,  a pretty standard rock musical with dialog and bits and music. It was much like something like you would get with Pippin  for instance, which has stand-alone songs that don’t usually develop the story (Morning Glow, Extraordinary, Corner of the Sky ), but rather tell you a state of where the character is in. Beauty School Drop Out  from Grease  would be another example.

skullduggery sacred foolsThis show is more like Sondheim’s, Into the Woods  or Sweeney Todd  or Les Miserable  where you have story happening through music and music signaling changes in characters. Every song in Skullduggery  has a story that takes you somewhere by the end of the song. So it propels the motion forward. The music is this constant character throughout, giving everything a Shakespearean resonance. Whereas the dialog alone could never come close to the music of Shakespeare’s verse.

Stylistically, some elements of the drama play heavily with irony. This being the prequel to Hamlet, we know all the characters are going to die. Gertrude tragically at Claudius’ hands. Hamlet Sr. by Claudius.  Just like Sheffer’s Amadeus  where Saliere announces that he killed Mozart or in Hamilton where Burr says that he killed Hamilton. So every scene and interaction after that moment has that tension and irony, driving the energy forward, pushing us to the end of the show. The question is “How do we feel about it when we get there?”

skullduggery sacred foolsScott Leggett (Producer): It was clear that this was going to be both ambitious and a bit daunting.  Two years ago, there were just rough demos of the songs, so I had to imagine what they would sound like when they were fully developed.  Because the show covers the thirty years prior to Hamlet, we had to pay particular attention to where characters started and where they would eventually end up in Shakespeare’s play.

Michael Teoli, (Music Director):  I’m actually not a big Shakespeare guy, and wasn’t too familiar with Hamlet.  In 2013, Fisher sat me down and mapped out the story and relationships he had built in Skullduggery, and also compared and contrasted how the characters were perceived in Hamlet.  I was hooked.  It blew my mind how he was able to come up with this back story that changed the way you felt about all the characters in Hamlet… yet everything in Hamlet  supports what is built in Skullduggery.  In my mind, the story of Skullduggery  is truth.

Who is the real villain here?

skullduggery sacred foolsFisher: Skullduggery  serves to defend the bad guy Claudius in a sense by turning him into a protagonist from an antagonist. I’m giving him all the reasons why he may have gone astray. Why he may have killed his brother. Did he have justification? What were they? It asks, “How do we stray from the loves that we establish among people? How do they go awry? Where is the miscommunication? Where is the bitterness? From where do those things grow?” It re-conceives what a villain is.

The villain is the ambition. The villain in all of us.  That’s the tragedy. It’s like the grave diggers say in the show: “We can never lead the perfect life. What our hearts project, can oft deflect and lead us to strife.”

David Haverty (Hamlet, Sr.): Hamlet, Sr. is this story’s villain. His character here has so many dimensions.  We had to take him from being the loving bully older brother of Claudius, to paranoid tyrant, to the worthy King Hamlet that Prince Hamlet dies to revenge once returning to Elsinore.

How do the characters in Skullduggery play against what eventually happens in Hamlet?

skullduggery sacred foolsCurt Bonnem (Polonius): I had to figure out how to capture the spirit of the Polonius we know, but as a younger man. The “young” Polonius is not yet the doddering, over-protective father we see later. He’s still a vital, active person in Act I of Skullduggery  put into situations and events which shape the character we’ve come to know.

Leigh Wulff (Gertrude): I felt a connection to Gertrude’s overtly feminist struggle, her tough choices, her stoic yet playful and loving nature. She has intuitive street smarts that have allowed her to survive with grace and dignity.

Brendan Hunt (Yorick / Ghost / Player): The weight of Hamlet,  and everything that comes after the events of Skullduggery, was unavoidable from an intellectual standpoint. But playing Yorick, a character we don’t actually meet in Hamlet  anyway, there was greater freedom in just not worrying about Hamlet  at all.

Jeffrey Sumner (Goodman Delver):  Goodman Delver and his dimwitted co-worker Dull, actually appear in Hamlet  (Act 5, Scene 1) digging Ophelia’s grave. They are classic Shakespearean clowns.  Commoners who deliver clever truths that seem to out-wit those in superior positions.  A Greek chorus, of sorts, foreshadowing what is yet to come and with ironic humor.

skullduggery sacred foolsFisher: Hamlet only has these sort of two-dimensional characters around him while he is the fully-grieving, fully-realized conscious character. He’s around types. Polonius, for instance, is based on a Comedia type. In this story these people get two hours to show and sing who they are, to contradict themselves, to argue, to be inspired and to play.  And that makes Hamlet  the play all the more interesting.

(All Photos:  Jessica Sherman Photography)

About Tracey Paleo

Tracey Paleo is Associate Editor at FootLights Magazine. She's also the Founder and Chief Editor of the arts and culture site, Gia On The Move, where she often reviews live performance events.

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