‘Hatcher’s Hamlet,’ or how a theater artist came to be

Jeffrey Hatcher in “Jeffrey Hatcher’s Hamlet.” (Photo by Aaron Fenster.)

Do you remember the first play you were ever in?

Jeffrey Hatcher does. The playwright’s stage debut was an adaptation of the Classics Illustrated comic book’s rendering of “Hamlet.” The venue was his fifth-grade class in Steubenville, Ohio.

Don’t let the small scale fool you. Hatcher’s first venture onto the boards came with the trappings of grown-up theater: balky producers, temperamental actors, last-minute revisions and even the first stirrings of mental illness on the artistic staff.

Hatcher tells the story in his one-man show, “Jeffrey Hatcher’s Hamlet,” which opened last weekend at Illusion Theater in Minneapolis. Promotional materials describe the play as “a comedy with little to no Shakespeare,” and that’s true, as far as it goes.

But it’s more than that. It’s also a fond traipse through a landscape of boyhood memories littered with icons like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and a light sampling of serious insights into Shakespeare and the staging of his works. For example: Was Hamlet truly mad, or merely acting mad? The question has given us a succession of Hamlets played as mad actors.

And the play touches on themes of adolescent mortification that are somehow all the more poignant because of the stature of the man describing them. Like Hatcher’s recollection of a cue that he missed: “There is no time to brood on my humiliation,” he says. “There will be decades for that.” He displays a picture of himself at age 11, wearing tweed and a deerstalker hat, as though getting ready, he admits, to audition for the role of Piggy in the musical version of “Lord of the Flies.”

This is a smart and funny show that stays well away from self-importance, requires no knowledge of “Hamlet,” and hits a just-right length of 80 minutes with no intermission. It runs through Oct. 25.