Something is rotten in the state of… Seattle.
Nirvamlet, a theatrical event by Boulder-based Band of Toughs, twists Shakespeare’s classic by casting Hamlet as the son of 90s grunge legends Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Over the course of an evening you can meet Hamlet’s entire cast of characters, though they may be sporting more flannel, ripped denim and band tees than you pictured during your senior English class.
Standing in for Seattle/Elsinore is the sprawling Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC). After checking in, we followed the strains of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin“* to the DPAC’s parking garage, where Nirvamlet’s house band keyed up the 90s nostalgia with grunge favorites.
*Nerd alert: this song makes a Merchant of Venice reference.
We loitered in the parking garage only long enough to meet the cast of Nirvamlet. Shakespeare’s characters are all present — Hamlet and Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, etc — but each has been dipped in angst, Doc Martens and a love of Sub Pop.
We, the audience, were on a journey to help Detective Fortinbras (below) separate fact from fiction. Did Cobain/Hamlet Senior truly end his life, or was there a darker hand at work? Is it better to burn out or to fade away? To be or not to be?
Guided by Fortinbras and the roving rock band, this journey invited us through DPAC’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House in order to witness crime scenes, key memories, and evidence. This is no straight-forward murder mystery; Nirvamlet takes metaphysical twists and melodramatic turns along the way. In Band of Tough’s words: “Nirvamlet rides the waves of fame and fortune, discovering the darker side of rock royalty in a fast-paced exploration of rock, revenge, and life and death.”
While the detective chewed on his conspiracy theories, I had a more pragmatic question in mind: What happens when a Fringe artist is given the run of an entire opera house?
That is, after all, what drew me to Nirvamlet in the first place. The show began as a performance in the 2018 Boulder International Fringe Festival, and Fringe shows are one of my favorite types of theater.
In my experience, Fringe shows are brief, more than a little off-the-wall, and inventive as hell. They often make use of a non-theatrical space, such as the basement of a bar or the conference room at a library. They tend to be smaller-budget shows, featuring simple lighting and ad hoc sound design.
So what happens when you take a a scrappy Fringe company and give it free reins in an enormous and professional venue?
In the case of Nirvamlet, what happens is, quite often, magic.
To me, the moments that took place in more formally staged areas lost the most energy. Nirvamlet does not hold up nearly as well as a straight play to sit and watch — for example, the typically dramatic “get thee to a nunnery” scene between Hamlet and Ophelia fell flat for me, until Queen Courtney Love burst out into a caterwaul to liven things up.
However, when Band of Toughs leans in to break that fourth wall, the sparks are there. One of my favorite moments of the show came when Band of Toughs needed to move us a great distance from one room to another, through backstage corridors and bland stairwells. Instead of merely herding us along, they planted their actors every few yards, where they would repeat small vignettes along our path. These scenes were minuscule, simply a few lines of an overheard phone call or a peek at a woman weeping over a guitar case, just enough to make you feel as though you’d had a glance at something private.
Those out-of-the-box moments are precisely the kind of theater I expect to see from a Fringe company, and I found no shortage of these little gems in Nirvamlet. They are difficult to describe without giving away the magic; experience them for yourself if you are able.
It is not a word-perfect production. There are hiccups and slips, a bit of clunky lighting and some dialogue lost to poor acoustics. Its edges show (like a live grunge show might), and I don’t mind. Nirvamlet is a Fringe production which has been given the space, energy and love to become bigger, and this creative, funky show is worth the effort.
Nirvamlet runs through August 3rd.