Theater

Ham It Up

A unique take on a theatrical classic

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For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has inspired actors, audiences, and at least one miniature pig on YouTube. The title character, that doomed prince of Denmark, has been dramatized, analyzed and mythologized within an inch of his angst-ridden life. Scores of artists, filmmakers and playwrights have adapted his tragic tale into exciting new works. But, what do you suppose two female accountants might make of the guy? Wonder no more. Just watch Leigh and Melissa Present: Hamlette!

Written and performed by local theatre artists Leigh Hendrix and Melissa Bowler, Hamlette! is the funny story of two officemates re-envisioning a famous play. From adjoining cubicles in the accounting department, they discover a shared passion for performance art. So, they come up with a seemingly great idea: to put on a two-woman rendition of Hamlet in the basement of a nearby church. They stay late in the office each night, rehearsing in secret. But, as their hopes for success grow, so do their artistic differences. Before long, both their budding friendship and their show are in jeopardy.

At a May workshop of Hamlette!, Hendrix and Bowler were hysterical. The TV series The Office came to mind, seeing them sink their teeth into meaty soliloquies and fashion impromptu props from the contents of a supply closet. (The swordfight with mop handles was a highlight.) Their characters juggled creative aspirations, workplace apathy and emotional intimacy with an appealing, sense of earnestness. The result was a load of relatable, awkward and unexpected moments that kept the audience in stitches.

Hendrix and Bowler first became friends when portraying celebrity buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, respectively, in a Theatre of Thought production of Matt & Ben. (Coincidentally, that’s another two-woman show, penned by pals Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers.) Hamlette! started as a sketch this past November, with the duo mining material from their own experiences of collaboration – and the occasional challenges involved.

“It’s a buddy comedy and we play exaggerated clowns of ourselves,” Bowler notes. “The stresses our heroines feel are a heightened version of the stresses we felt from working together.

Hendrix explains, “We also come from very different backgrounds, much like our characters. Melissa comes from more of an improv/sketch/stand-up background and I come from a theatrical/performance art/storytelling background. This, at times, can make it hard to communicate, but it also broadens our collective knowledge and gives us more to play with. Ultimately, that is what makes it so much fun to be on stage together, and what makes this show so fun to watch.”

Why tackle one of the Bard’s biggest hits as a topic? Bowler suggests, “Hamlet is a familiar show that we could reference in the piece and people would get the references. We think the same goes for an office setting because it’s a common place where people work or have worked. To us, Hamlet represents everyday theater and the office represents everyday life.”

She adds, jokingly, “That’s deep, right?”

Hamlette! opens this month at the 95 Empire Black Box Theatre as a Residence@95 production. It’s part of AS220’s new arts program featuring original work by Rhode Islanders. So, grab a coworker or two and catch this practiced pair hamming it up. You can watch that old YouTube pig later, in the office.

Leigh and Melissa Present: Hamlette! runs September 20-30 at 95 Empire.