Drinks are poured and plenty of ’em in this noir retelling of Hamlet. “Whiskey and water, hold the water, just the way you like it,” is how Shakespeare’s titular character, here known as Nat Hamill, takes it, and that’s how Dashiell Hamlet, first staged in the early ’80s by one of Chicago’s seminal storefront outfits, the Commons Theatre, succeeds. Steadily guided by Nussbaum, this compact production featuring a razor-sharp cast keeps its identity potent and its source material undiluted. City Lit has cast Shakespeare’s tragedy as a hard-boiled detective story, the kind perfected by the play’s other namesake, Dashiell Hammett—the kind that makes you form thoughts in hyperbolic similes like a hot-and-bothered gumshoe on a sleepless August night.
The private dick in this case, Harry Teal (a.k.a. Horatio), is implored by Nat to investigate the suspicious death of his movie-mogul dad in 1945 L.A. And so the machinery of Hamlet is set in motion, only now greased by liquor, smoke and the drily pithy words of noir (despite a strange lack of smoking thanks to the Law, i.e., the City of Chicago). Though the updated framework runs the risk of being too lacquered in noir style to reveal motivation and feeling, there’s real satisfaction in discovering how City Lit translates the mother of all Shakespeare plays into the sinister, belt-of-Scotch world of noir. The transposition only fails with Rosie and Gillie, stand-ins for the comic-relief pair Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who aren’t very comic and who are outdone by the famed gravedigger scene (here a coupla working stiffs from the city morgue). That penultimate scene’s an inspired marriage of the two worlds that has less water, more bite. Just the way we like it.