Sunday, April 02, 2017

A female “Hamlet” brings a twist to the play at Great Lakes Theater, well, almost . . .

Prince Hamlet is depressed, disillusional, and maniacal. 

Having been summoned home to Denmark from school in Germany to attend his father's funeral, he is shocked to find his mother Gertrude already remarried to his Uncle Claudius, the dead king's brother, who has declared himself the king, though young Hamlet is the actual heir to the crown. Hamlet, rightly, suspects foul play.

Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is considered by many Bard experts to be his greatest tragedy script.  For years, the melancholy tale of death, betrayal, family dysfunction, and revenge has been a staple on the programs of major theatres and analyzed in many a school classroom.

“Hamlet” is filled with intrigue, betrayal, deception and revenge. 

On a dark winter night, a ghost walks the ramparts of Elsinore Castle in Denmark.  The apparition resembles the recently deceased King.  When Hamlet’s friend, Horatio sees the illusion, he brings the Prince of Denmark to see the ghost, who speaks to him, declaring that it is indeed his father’s spirit, and he was murdered by his brother, Claudius.  The ghost disappears with the dawn, leaving Hamlet with no option but revenge.

We observe as Hamlet schemes, acts irrationally, considers suicide ("To be, or not to be: that is the question"), and comes to the realization that death wouldn't be the escape he craves.

In this, and many other scenes, Hamlet displays his personal tragic flaw, a requirement that Shakespeare incorporated, based on Greek theatrical tradition, as a trait element of tragic heroes.  The Prince is unable to make decisions, and when he decides, the outcome has tragic consequences.  In the play, eight of the nine primary characters, including Hamlet, Ophelia, her father, her brother, his mother and uncle all die, because of Hamlet’s actions.

The play is filled with many themes, each identified by a quote. 

Political intrigue:   The king has been killed, there is a new king on the throne, one of questionable right to the seat, the deceased king's son acting erratically, something's clearly off. (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”)

Awareness of the process of life:  As Hamlet stands at the newly dug grave which will soon house Ophelia, he looks at a skull, which the gravedigger has identified, says, “Oh Yorick I knew him well.”  Yes, it is the remains of Yorick, the court jester who was the young man’s companion and tutor.  Hamlet realizes that death eliminates the differences between people as we all ultimately crumble into dust.

Women and their roles:  "Frailty, thy name is woman!" and “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” highlight Hamlet’s perception that women, like his mother, are weak, as she is not even strong enough to mourn but escapes her angst by insincerely moving on.  She is also manipulated by a man, unable to act on her own.

Irony is a part of life that becomes a message when Polonius gives advice to his son, Laertes, that "This above all: to thine own self be true." Yet he does not follow his sage words and both he and Laertes die because they are not true to themselves. 

The script goes on with more and more Shakespearean ideas such as, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in wisdom! How infinite in faculty!” and “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Charles Fee, the director of Hamlet at Great Lakes Theater, in his program notes explains some of the artistic decisions of this production.  He states, “In choosing to double cast the role of Hamlet with a woman and a man playing alternate performances, we are exploring the possibility that Hamlet’s nature and his responses to the dramatic action may reveal more depth and elicit more compassion than we would experience through a single actor’s interpretation.”

As for a female playing the lead role, this is not that unusual.  In 1775, Sarah Sidons portrayed the Prince of Denmark in British stagings, while in 1820 Sarah Bartley did an American production in the role. 

Probably the best known of female Hamlets was Sarah Bernhard, who, at the turn of the century, was much praised for her performances.  On the other hand, Dame Judith Anderson’s 1970 Carnegie Hall performances, at age 73, were “deemed weak and ill-conceived by critics.”

Joseph Papp, who established the Public Theater, explained, regarding a woman portraying the role, “''I have always felt that there is a strong female side to Hamlet --not feminine so much as female. To me that has to do with an easier capacity to express emotion. The person playing Hamlet should be able to weep unabashedly and unashamedly. There are men who can do that, but they should be young; Hamlet is a very young person, an adolescent, a student.” 

Papp went on to warn, ''I think most people would not approve of having a woman in the role.  I think most audiences are conservative about a change of sex of any kind, and they consider 'Hamlet' sacrosanct.''
Papp may well have been right.  In an intermission conversation with people at the GLT preview performance I was told by several Shakespeare traditionalists, “Why don’t these people leave Shakespeare as it was written.” And, “Why can’t they leave things alone and not tinker with greatness.”

I found Laura Welsh Berg’s portrayal of Hamlet appealing and providing a different emotional dimension to the role.  There was an introspection that I hadn’t heard in the many, many performances I had seen before, with males performing the role.

Frustration emerged however, since the actors referred to “her” as “he,” “him,” and “sir,” when I was aware that Berg was a female and was using “feminine” gesture patterns and vocal tonations.  (As per the research on masculine-feminine studies by Sandra Bem and Deborah Tannen.) 

Also, the relationship to Ophelia was confusing with the masculine gender terms.  If played as a woman-to-a-woman, truly a new, a modern dimension, would have been introduced.  If the intent was to stretch the interpretation, why not go all the way?  (The same could be done by adding a male-male component to the male Hamlet version.)

A third issue might be the assumption that members of the audience are going to see the performances of both Berg and the other Hamlet, Jonathan Dyrud.  If not, there is going to be no way to gain the appreciation which Fee explained might happen in the duo casting.

Fee’s program notes also state, “Our scenic design will allow part of the audience to sit onstage, surrounding the actors, as well as on either side of the platform downstage.”  He explains, “For those sitting onstage the experience my feel like being in the play rather than passively watching the play.”

Having some of the audience on stage was a departure.  In Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the groundlings stood around the stage in close proximity to the actors.  Several persons who were seated in the added seats which hugged the stage apron on two sides, expressed their pleasure in seeing and “feeling” the action up close.  

On the other hand, a local reviewer who was seated on stage, moved into orchestra seats for the second act, as he said he couldn’t hear many of the lines in the first act, as they were projected into the auditorium, with the actor’s backs to those ensconced on stage.  He also indicated that he could not see a great deal of action because of the wooden framing which blocked much of the stage and all of the action portrayed in the alcove at the rear of the center stage.

Fee nicely added some humor to the performance, which relieved a degree of the tension without eliminating the angst.  The pacing was sprightly, making the long production seem short, with a high degree of audience attention.

The cast was excellent.  Berg earned her standing audience curtain call.  Erin Partin was superlative as Ophelia.  Her “insane” scene was spell-binding.  Laura Perrotta was properly conflicted as Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. David Anthony Smith nicely developed the king of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle, who killed the youth’s father, into a disliked not overly-done melodramatic maniac.  This added a nice realistic dimension to the role.  Strong performances were also presented by Dougfred Miller (Polonius), Nic Steen (Laertes), and Christopher Tocco (Horatio).

Kim Krumm Sorenson’s opulent costume designs, Rick Martin’s lighting and Ken Merckx’s fight choreography added much to the performance.  High praise to Lynn Robert Berg and Dougfred Miller whose coaching made the speeches easy to understand.

Capsule judgement:  The preview performance of “Hamlet” grabbed and held the audience’s attention.  Laura Welsh Berg was convincing and gave a “different” dimension to the role of the Prince of Denmark.  Though Shakespeare traditionalists may scream “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (GLT), others who see the “female” version of the play should leave saying, “Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”  

“Hamlet” runs through April 15 at the Hanna Theatre.  To ascertain when the male or female Hamlet is performing and to get tickets call 216-664-6064 or link to