To Do or Not to Do

A fe­male Ham­let less par­a­lyzed by in­de­ci­sion, doubt

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Lisa Kennedy

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.

★★★5 SHAKE­SPEARE

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 (lkennedy­writer@gmail.com) is a for­mer film and theater critic for The Den­ver Post.

Jen­nifer Kosk­i­nen, Colorado Shake­speare Festival

“Ham­let” fe­tures Lenne Klinga­man, left, in the plum role of theater’s most fa­mous prince — er, princess, and Ava Kos­tia as Laertes.

Jen­nifer Kosk­i­nen, Colorado Shake­speare Festival

Emelie O’hara (Ophe­lia) and Ji­had Mil­hem (Ho­ra­tio) star in Colorado Shake­speare Festival’s “Ham­let.”

Jen­nifer Kosk­i­nen, Colorado Shake­speare Festival

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