No Refund Theater returns this weekend to put on the final production of its spring catalogue: “Hamlet*”.
Directed by fourth-year students Marley Bradner and Blake Pierson, the production explores the Shakespearean tale with 21st-century flair. Written by Pierson as a comedy, “Hamlet*” centers around a community theater group putting on the classic story despite last-minute challenges. As chaos ensues, each character attempts to have the show go on in their individual roles. Yet, Murphy’s Law is one step ahead, as anything that can go wrong does go wrong by the end of the night.
Combining meta elements of real experience from these two theater veterans, the production revolves around the “show within a show” context, representing the real-life theater community so recognizable by any thespian. As inevitable things go wrong and characters develop both onstage and offstage, an overarching lesson emerges: Even with the best of scripts, it is the people behind the parts who truly write the story, leaving a lasting legacy far beyond a single night’s performance.
After reimagining the classic Hamlet within the context of his own life, director and writer Blake Pierson started the writing process back in March 2020. Writing the full-length script first as a 10-minute scene for NRT tradition, “Tell Me a Story” Pierson first found inspiration close to home.
“It was a way for people to write for the club,” said the writer. “From there, the people I cast inspired it.”
In a similar fashion, the other half of the directing team, fourth-year Bradner, also found the motivation to direct the show alongside Pierson.
“After he wrote the first scene, I was like, ‘I need the rest of this show to happen.’ And I had always said I wanted to direct in NRT, but I had never been drawn to a show,” she said. “When he wrote this, I was like, ‘I’m going to direct this show.’”
Years later, that 10-minute scene has blossomed into a passion project for the duo, a culmination of their time within both NRT and other theatrical pursuits. Transforming Pierson’s initial dream sequence into what is now a collection of twelve actors, countless experiences, and varied technical elements was no easy feat, but the directing team worked together to complete the task.
“We have a very shared vision for this show,” said Bradner. “We knew who we wanted these characters to be and we knew the look of the set, so it’s been a pretty easy collaborative process.”
Within this process, a variety of elements combine for the finished, polished product, including improv comedy and in-depth character studies.
“Something fun with doing an original show is that there’s no previous thing to look at,” said Bradner. “They’ve totally built this world and built these characters.”
In similar sentiments, director and writer Blake Pierson elaborated on the detail-oriented approach taken by the cast and crew. With developed improv driving the story, a different show is ensured each night, bound to grasp the audience’s attention and hold it through the entire production weekend.
“We created an entire web of relationships and essentially just built these people so they would have a strong foundation, and they kept building and creating these people for four months, so everything feels organic,” said Pierson.
In a hilarious commentary similar to the improv comedy on stage, the director revealed how the production mirrored life offstage, recognizable to only those bold enough to claim the iconic title ‘theatre kid.’
“It sort of happened naturally because they are sort of playing each other, and you draw for the character from these experiences you have had with each other,” said Bradner.
Embracing this meta element of representing theater kids everywhere, the production also employs a revolving set-piece as the focal point of the show. Featuring the forum chalkboard as the divider between onstage scenes and offstage scenes, the production centers around classic NRT values of family and community.
“It’s sort of an NRT tradition that this chalkboard is used in our backstage, pre-show ceremonies, but we wanted to bring it out and have it be the center point of our stage,” said Bradner.
“The whole stage transforms from one way to another, and our tech is doing an incredible job,” echoed Pierson.
In another testament to tradition, construction pieces used for the show are highlighted with written homage to previous NRT productions, quite similar to elementary high school theater traditions in which productions are counted and stored as memories. This tribute is particularly sentimental for senior members working on Hamlet as their last production before graduation.
“Whenever we put up flats for a show, we write on the back of them the name of the show and the number of flat it is,” said Bradner. “They’re written in chalk, so you can’t see them that much, but we’ve highlighted them in Sharpie so that from the audience, you can read the history of the past few years of NRT.”
“It’s history,” Pierson continued. “People don’t usually know about it unless they are behind that set.”
In paying homage to previous productions within set and script, the production serves as a meaningful closing on the NRT careers of both Pierson and Bradner, as well as NRT President Emma Cagle, Zachary Renda, and Lyndsey Carr. Reflecting upon this final production, Bradner shared a message for the audience straight from the comedic chaos of the show.
“Embrace life. Embrace the struggles. Embrace those mistakes,” said Bradner.
With gratitude, Pierson concluded the process with pride for his cast and crew bringing the original work to life from its humble beginning, right before the curtain closes with graduation.
“Theatre is a family,” said Pierson. “Everybody has just made everything their own, and I’m proud of them…It’s so much fun to work with my best friends, and to put on something that everybody cares so much about.”
The North Reinberg Theater will open “Hamlet*” at 8 pm on Thursday, April 21. Two more productions will follow at 8 pm on Friday, April 22, and Saturday, April 23. Each performance is held in Forum 111.
As always, No Refund Theater productions are free of charge. A trigger warning is emphasized for death and language.