The Enlightened Hamlet

Paul Besterman comes into Dan Decker’s office, asking which of six or seven prop flutes he prefers for the upcoming Hamlet. Besterman, who will play Polonius in Las Vegas Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare in the Park, roots for the strangest-looking. Decker, the company’s artistic director, chooses a traditional brown recorder. When Besterman objects, Decker says plainly, “It looks like a hookah.”

That’s the kind of attention to detail Decker has with his 90-minute adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic, which keeps the original language completely intact. He’s a man of words—he spent 18 years teaching scriptwriting all over the country before he returned to theater. “My first love was always Shakespeare, since I don’t know when. In utero! … He is the mother of all words. There was always an affinity, and I reached a point where I wanted to retire from the teaching of the scriptwriting, and get back to my first love.”

But Decker certainly hasn’t retired from educating. With Besterman in his office, he tells the story of how the character that he’ll be portraying, Polonius, got his name. It involves the Polish emissary’s visit to Queen Elizabeth, where he “[laid] down a set of demands from the Polish king … and the Queen said, in Latin, ‘I was expecting a diplomat and I got a fool,’ whatever her phrasing was … and they put him on the next boat back to Poland.’”

Education also is a heavy component in the Shakespeare in the Park. The company will take scenes from Hamlet to 30 middle and high schools, breaking up into teams to do in-class presentations.

“It is four weekends in Henderson plus one matinee performance for about 2,000 high school kids at the Henderson Pavilion. … I’m so proud to have this program. It’s why we do what we do. We come into the arts for a reason,” Decker says with a smile.

And his reason, it seems, is evident: to bring the words of Shakespeare to modern audiences in a way our brains can compute. “The Elizabethan audiences could process words like crazy—far greater than we can process words. They could hear the difference between the number of syllables in a sentence; we can’t. We can process story far better than they could, because, honestly, it was Shakespeare who invented the character-driven drama, which is what we live on today.”

And his and his company’s interpretation of Hamlet might surprise you: “A lot of people want to say that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. Actually everybody wants to say that, and they’re all wrong. Hamlet, our Hamlet, the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company’s take on Hamlet, is that this is the story of one man’s journey to enlightenment. Hamlet is on a path of self-discovery. He lives in a terrible world: a world of deceit and treachery and double-dealing and murder and he doesn’t like that. And what you see in the play, in the course of the story, is Hamlet skirts around the entire human soul, around the edges, to find his way to the center, which he does at the end of the play, only to be pulled back down into this world and killed. But before they kill him, he reaches a point where he realizes ‘that nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’”

Decker quotes the title character with such finesse, it doesn’t seem like it’s a line from the play. If the production can as seamlessly utilize the language as its director does, Las Vegas is in for a treat.