What do Asta Nielsen, Sarah Bernhardt, Charlotte Crampton, Anna Dickinson, Clare Howard, Bertha Kalisch, Alice Marriott, Wineta Montague, Alma Murray, Louise Pomeroy, Julia Seaman, Janette Steer and SarahMorton all have in common? They are all females who have played the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s epic play of the same name. Of these, locals probably know best the name of Sarah Morton, who is presently on stage in the gender-bending role at Beck Center for the Arts.
There is nothing unusual about actors playing opposite-sex roles in Shakespearean productions. In the Bard’s time, women were not allowed on stage, so boys or young men played female roles. But, with Hamlet there is a slightly different twist. There is some conjecture among Shakespeare experts that Hamlet actually was a female, pretending to be a male. This, again, isn’t far fetched as many of Shakespeare’s plays had females dresses and pretend to be males.
The Hamlet script, however, has some differences. Many references are made to “him” in the dialogue. Even in the birth scene at the beginning of the play there is reference to Hamlet being the heir to the throne. That role was reserved for males.
Actually, after a while of watching director David Hansen’s interpretation of the play one almost forgets that a female is playing the role except for some very feminine like reactions...the style of crying, the tenderness, the body carriage often displayed by Morton. Feminine, in this case is as described in the research of Sandra Bem, who has carefully documented masculine and feminine traits.
Hansen adds to the questioning by throwing in a passionate kiss at the end of the play, which either has some homoerotic overtones, or clearly indicates that Hamlet was a woman in love with her best friend, Horatio.
The play’s plot, in its simplest form, centers on Prince Hamlet, the son of the late King Hamlet. The young Hamlet is charged by the ghost of his father to avenge the king’s murder by his brother, which the young Hamlet finally succeeds in doing, but only after the rest of the royal house has been wiped out and he has been mortally wounded with a poisoned rapier at the end of the play.
Beck’s production is effective in some ways, lacking in others. This is an uneven, yet creative and bold production. At times it could have been hoped that Hansen had more carefully heeded Shakespeare’s words, “Suit the words to the action and the action to the purpose.” At other times, the intent was clear.
Using many theatrical techniques...projections which give the setting and titles to each segment, stylized acting mixed with realistic presentations, reinterpretation of the script that might drive traditional Shakespearean viewers to scream in protest...the long production, is often off-setting. Part of this is the inconsistent quality of the acting, part is the breaking of the flow by throwing in gimmicks, some of which seem gimmicks for the sake of gimmicks, and the choppiness of the pacing. Some of the pacing problems may sort out as the players get more comfortable.
Don McBride’s set of off-kilter flats and off-balanced levels, works well to create this interpretation of the script. Richard Ingraham’s sound, especially the music and echoing voice of the king, also add to Hansen’s interpretation. Alison Garrigan’s costumes, like the production, run from “right on” to why does the queen not look queenly and why is Polonius’s garb so different from the rest of the cast?
The dumb-show segments were creatively choreographed by Alison Garrigan and the fights, especially considering the closeness of the audience to the action, were well developed by Joshua Brown and Kelly Elliott.
Sarah Morton is generally on-key as Hamlet. At
times, Morton, seemed absorbed in the role, at other times her concentration wavered and caused some meaning discord. Often played like the words of a total madman, or a psychotic on the brink of suicide, the famous “To Be or Not to Be” speech, was underplayed, giving it a thought provoking interpretation not often heard.
Nicholas Koesters was excellent as Horatio. He created a clear character as did George Roth as Polonius.
On the other hand, Mark Cipra was unbelievable as Claudius. His interpretation was all over the place. Some of his lines were meaningful, some meaningless, others overacted, some mumbled. The same can be said for Anne McEvoy who played Gertrude, she of a weird hairdo, and lack of consistency and clarity of character. Rachel Lee Kolis’s early scenes as Ophelia were shallow, but she created a properly paethic and psychotically grief stricken orphan after Polonius, her father, was killed by Hamlet.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HAMLET’ is an awesome undertaking. David Hansen has developed a production which can be very off-setting in its inconsistency and interpretation, yet it is a brave attempt to create a different slant on the most-oft produced of Shakespeare’s plays.