Sunday, July 31, 2016


SCS reinvents Hamlet in solid new production

It's not like a woman has never played Hamlet before.

Sarah Bernhardt famously played the great Dane onstage in 1899, captured for posterity in this poster by Alphonse Mucha.

Classical Danish actress Asta Nielsen essayed the role in a 1921 silent film.

(Although, it seems like Shakespeare without spoken words is sort of missing the point).

What's wild about Nielsen's version is that this Hamlet was supposedly born female, but her parents brought her up disguised as a boy to preserve the lineage.

That this Hamlet has lived all her life in male drag complicates relationships in the drama: she sort of jollies along old Polonius' attempts to match her up with his daughter, Ophelia, but she secretly pines for friend and schoolfellow, Horatio.

Here's a highlight reel of the film via You Tube, with includes a link to the entire two-hour film.

What's fresh about the new Santa Cruz Shakespeare interpretation is that Kate Eastwood Norris plays the character of Hamlet as a woman.

Nothing is changed in the script, except references to "son" are switched to "daughter," and the prevailing form of address becomes "my Lady," instead of "my Lord."

The rest of the play is still intact, including Hamlet's love affair with Ophelia.

Everyone knows they've always been drawn to each other; when Hamlet feigns madness, in hopes of sussing out the truth of her father's untimely demise, everyone assumes she's out of her mind with love for Ophelia.

Dueling Hamlets: Eastwood Norris
And here's the deal: nobody thinks anything of it. Casting Hamlet as a woman doesn't turn it into a "lesbian love story." The Hamlet-Ophelia subplot is about young love, in all its recklessness, passion, and confusion — just as it always has been.

Meanwhile, the rest of Shakespeare's tragedy marches on in this bare-bones, yet powerful production. The metal monkey-bar towers from Midsummer are wrapped in bunting to stand in for interior castle columns.

And without atmospheric sets, it's up to the writing and the acting to deliver the goods. Happily, both Shakespeare, and this excellent cast, are up to the task.

Norris doesn't miss a note of the character's complexity; her Hamlet is dashing, introspective, and witty, by turns. Torn as she is between inaction and confident resolution, she also makes the most of every wry aside — especially concerning the marriage of her mother, the queen, to her uncle, after the sudden demise of her father, the king.

Dueling Hamlets: Bernhardt

When she cries,, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" this female Hamlet sounds both astonished and self-deprecating.

Bernard K. Addison (so boisterously funny as Bottom in Midsummer) is both fierce and stately as the Ghost of Hamlet's murdered father, as well as his own murderous brother, Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, all too speedily wed to her mother, Queen Gertrude (Carol Halstead).

In this version, Patty Gallagher plays a female Polonius as a sort of dotty matchmaker, egging on her daughter, Ophelia (Mia Ellis), to encourage and comply with the increasingly distracted Hamlet in hopes of arranging a royal union.

Mike Ryan makes a stalwart Horatio. And Larry Paulsen is absolutely terrific in voice and manner as the Player King.

This is where this season's costume budget went, with B. Modern designing a fabulous lace-covered gown for Queen Gertrude, and a magnificent, ivory-hued robe for the Ghost — who makes an eerie circuit around the back of the seating area before joining the action onstage.

(However, the backpacks and plaid skirts for the female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make them seem more like Catholic schoolgirls than university students. But it's a nice touch that Hamlet wears her skirt rakishly over pants, and her vest unbuttoned.)

The play is definitely the thing in this streamlined, highly effective production.

Addison, Norris, Halstead: that's Princess of Denmark.

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