For a less conventional version of the "Hamlet" story--a downright kooky one, in fact--look no further than "Mad Boy Chronicle" at 24th Street Theatre.
In the U.S. premiere of Canadian playwright Michael O'Brien's perplexing parody, Shakespeare's tragedy has been transposed to a fanciful Helsingor in the Viking era (circa AD 999), as Christian missionaries begin their first penetration into barbarian Denmark.
Though given new names, the characters and their actions parallel their Shakespearean counterparts; however, the plays diverge not only in their outcomes but also in their focus.
Assuming considerably greater prominence than even "Mad Boy" Horvendal/Hamlet (Michael McGroarty) is Lord Fengo/Claudius, a lusty, bellicose thug brilliantly portrayed by Adam Bitterman. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that illegitimate rulers garner more emphasis and ultimately more sympathy than weak crusaders for justice.
In other upheavals, Lilia/Ophelia (Carolyn Palmer) becomes a deranged warrior, while her father Mathius/Polonius (David Mersault) flips from meekness to child-molesting lechery (though he's still as ineffectual as ever).
Denise Gillman's direction sustains interest though striking visual flourishes, such as having the dying Gerutha/Gertrude (Terra Shelman) slide across the stage, unfurling a long red swath of fabric in her wake.
But the uneasy question remains: What to do with the references once we get them? Echoing the original in couplets like "The baptism's the place/Where I'll rub Viking justice in his face" underscores the central problem here: The conceit is too weirdly elaborate for parody, but not strong enough to extricate itself from the shadow of a greater play.
* "Mad Boy Chronicle," 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends July 15. $15. (213) 745-6516. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.