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Murder? Madness? Hamlet will get his day in court before Justice Kennedy

January 7, 2011 | 12:14 pm

Olivier-hamlet For one night, the big question in "Hamlet" won't be "To be, or not to be" but "Is he or isn't he?" -- as in "Is the prince of Denmark mentally competent to stand trial for the murder of Polonius?"

The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles will present a Jan. 31 mock trial to determine the answer in a program created and presided over by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

The legal-literary proceedings, which will be held at USC's Bovard Auditorium, will be run "as if it were a bona fide trial," says Ben Donenberg, the Shakespeare Center's founder and artistic director. "A lot rests on the testimony of expert witnesses. The lawyers will present their arguments. Justice Kennedy will adjudicate. We won't know the outcome until the jury brings back the verdict."

Donenberg says the attorneys -- all well-versed in handling high-profile cases --were chosen by the Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills bar associations. Defense attorneys Blair Berk and Richard G. Hirsch will represent Hamlet. The prosecutors will be Nathan J. Hochman, a former U.S. assistant attorney general, and Deputy District Atty. Danette Meyers. Expert witnesses will include psychiatrists Saul Faerstein and Ronald Markman.

Instead of the inhabitants of Elsinore, the jury for "The Trial of Hamlet" will consist of L.A.-area arts patrons, community leaders, students and actors Helen Hunt and Tom Irwin, who starred in a December production of  "Much Ado About Nothing" for the Shakespeare Center's 25th anniversary. Graham Hamilton will portray the defendant.

In the play, Hamlet stabs Polonius, royal advisor and father of his beloved Ophelia. The prince's sanity has long sparked scholarly debate. Now the question takes on a legal twist. "What mental condition was he in when he thrust his sword through the curtain?" Donenberg asks. "Would a jury today hold him responsible for his actions?"

Anthonykennedy Supreme Court justices have developed quite a tradition of participating in Bard-inspired mock trials. In 1987, for instance, three high court jurists heard arguments over who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Kennedy created "The Trial of Hamlet"  in 1994 and has presided over versions in several cities.

The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles is known for L.A.-centric interpretations of works including "Twelfth Night" and "Julius Caesar" and its community-outreach programs.

The mock trial will run from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Ticket information is available at www.shakespearecenter.org.

--Karen Wada

RECENT AND RELATED:

Theater review: 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

The Bard goes native at Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles

Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles to stage 'Much Ado About Nothing' starring Helen Hunt and Tom Irwin

Photos: Top, Laurence Olivier played the melancholy Dane in the 1948 film of "Hamlet."  Below, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Credits: "Hamlet," the Criterion Collection; Kennedy, Dennis Brack / Bloomberg

 

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