To Do or Not to Do
A female Hamlet less paralyzed by indecision, doubt
It matters. It matters not. It matters, it ... So go the two competing thoughts that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Hamlet” teases — and sustains. After all, this trip to Denmark — the ninth by the Boulderbased company in its 60 years — features actress Lenne Klingaman in the plum role of theater’s most famous prince. Er, princess.
If the bittersweet prince is famous for his melancholy and indecision, Klingaman’s performance can’t be accused of either. Will her vigorous, supple performance silence every naysayer or purist? Of course not. But her phrasing delivery is beautifully nimble, the better to hear the play’s promiscuously sampled
phrases in bloody, royal context.
(My first “Hamlet” unfolded at CSF’S Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre in 1980 and gobsmacked me with how so much of the language was already familiar.)
Klingaman’s heir is quicktongued and savvy, evident when she meets with old classmates Rosencrantz (Michael Bouchard) and Guildenstern (Sean Scrutchins).
(The three and a few more castmates will reconvene in CSF’S mounting of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” July 21 -Aug. 13.)
Her sword play in the climatic bout with Laertes is assured. Hamlet’s sporting showiness gives way to his ill temper.
Directed by Colorado Shakes’ veteran Carolyn Howarth, “Hamlet” is a handsome outing. Yes, even with the titular royal making her first appearance in a lovely plum gown (all of Hugh Hanson’s Edwardian-era costumes are pretty spiffy) at the start of the play, lurking in shadows, listening to the celebratory banter of mother Gertrude (Mare Trevathan) and stepfather Claudius (Gary Wright).
You surely recall that King Claudius cleverly dispatched his brother but not his brother’s ghost. It is that haunting figure who at the play’s start urges our complicated hero onto revenge.
The action takes place on an evocative but fixed set where painted white woods meet a justas-white palace. Later, a door in the floor will open to introduce a grousing gravedigger and poor Yorick. Shakespeare’s language swirls and arcs and dives enough without waves of scene-changes. Instead, designer Stephan Jones trusts his lighting to cast long tonal shadows or illuminate a stage with tufts of fake snow.
An intriguing (accidental?) byproduct of casting a female as Hamlet is that Ophelia (Emilie O’hara) and the queen, though well inhabited, get short shrift. As played by Trevathan, Gertrude doesn’t seem craven so much as a mother walking — rather stately, we might add — a fine line of denial. The same-sex-ness of Hamlet and Ophelia is understated. A line uttered by Gertrude that praised the young woman’s suitability as a daughter-in-law was trimmed, in hopes of keeping the audience from balking about historical accuracy.
As for Wright’s King Claudius, his abandoned attempt at a contrite prayer — “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go” — offers us a man unbowed by his deeds, quite aware of the moral lot he cast.
Many have read Hamlet’s melancholy and brooding inaction as feminine traits. Go with your gut! Kill Claudius and be done with it already! A female Hamlet makes the play seem less entangled with ambivalence.
Hamlet is not the only character Howarth has recast with actresses: Hamlet’s good friend then foe Laertes and the Norwegian royal Fortinbras are played by Ava Kostia and Elise Collins, respectively. In switching the gender of other actors in traditionally male roles, Howarth nudges us to either grapple with how gender scans (what to make of all these father-daughter dyads?) or let it go. Or, strangely, both.
In letting go, I found my way toward a fresh insight — one doubtless in the text all along but cracked open by this production. One that expanded the tale from its chilly yet hothouse familial traumas to a realization that there’s a great deal of collateral damage left in the wake of Clau- dius’ fratricide and Hamlet’s “gotcha” obsession. And I don’t mean the obvious victim: Ophelia. Or even her and Laertes’ father, Polonius. (Rodney Lizcano plays the king’s counselor with sycophantic relish, providing much comedy amid the ruins.)
On the eve of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1982 production of “Hamlet” — which featured actress Diane Venora in drag — legendary producer/director Joseph Papp told The New York Times, “I’ve seen 40 Hamlets, but I’ve seen things in this Hamlet I’ve never seen before. It illuminates parts of the play you would never see if a man were playing the role.”
With Hamlet’s passivity less the issue here, her self-absorption takes on a decidedly less heroic hue. Even Hamlet’s seemingly empathetic insight about Fortinbras’ possibly doomed soldiers — “The imminent death of twenty thousand men, that, for a fantasy and trick of fame, go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot” — is tinged with the arrogance of the entitled. I’d never quite heard it that way before.
Some updates turn gimmicky and get in the way. But when a tweak — or a seemingly more radical departure — works, it isn’t so much that we see Shakespeare anew as that we “hear” anew.
Lisa Kennedy (email@example.com) is a former film and theater critic for The Denver Post.
“Hamlet” fetures Lenne Klingaman, left, in the plum role of theater’s most famous prince — er, princess, and Ava Kostia as Laertes.
Emelie O’hara (Ophelia) and Jihad Milhem (Horatio) star in Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s “Hamlet.”