Which is more feminist: shouting from the rooftops that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of Hamlet this season features a female Hamlet — a Hamlette, if you will — or not mentioning it at all? Is a female Hamlet a cause for celebration of barriers broken and ceilings smashed, or should the casting choice be viewed, in this day and age, as an expected affirmation of just what a long way women have come in their quest for equality in what remains decidedly a man’s world?
Enjoy your social justice Zen koan for the day.
Fair warning for anyone ill at ease with the notion of a Hamlet who sports a vagina. It’s not just Hamlet (Lenne Klingaman) that Director Carolyn Howarth has gender-bent. A handful of other male characters, most notably Laertes (Ava Kostia), are played by women in the CSF’s take on one of the most famous, most often quoted and, frankly, best plays ever written. For anyone — and I truly hope you’re the vast majority — who couldn’t care a drib or drab about whether Hamlet is played by a pointer or setter, Howarth’s casting choice definitely doesn’t diminish Hamlet and, in certain cases, breathes freshness into a few of the mustier bits.
Hamlet remains a melancholy Dane, a mad princess, a child mourning the recent, untimely death of her father, the King, and a begrudging stepdaughter to an uncle, Claudius (Gary Wright), who swooped in too soon to claim both the crown and Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Mare Trevathan, always a pleasure). When the ghost of the King (Sam Gregory, commanding as ever) appears and explains to Hamlet that Claudius murdered him, Hamlet refuses rash action and instead concocts an intricate scheme to confirm whether ghost dad is, in fact, the spectral projection of Hamlet’s dead father and, therefore, to be believed or, rather, a Dickensian fragment of underdone potato that should not spur vengeful action of any sort.
Feigning madness to keep Claudius and his coterie — which includes Claudius’ chief advisor Polonius (Rodney Lizcano) and Hamlet’s childhood friends and fellow students Rosencrantz (Michael Bouchard) and Guildenstern (Sean Scrutchins) — off of her scent, Hamlet works to determine her uncle/stepfather’s guilt and also plays a bracing game of will-they-or-won’t-they with Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia (Emelie O’Hara). A skull soliloquy, an accidental murder and a poison-enlivened duel later, *SPOILER ALERT* pretty much everybody dies in a series of scenes that is the spiritual great-great-great-grandfather of the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.
Howarth’s Hamlet is set during a vaguely Edwardian Denmark winter. Towering, white, Aspen-like trees dominate the performance space. Snow blankets the stage and more than once fills the air. The set and lighting design by Stephen C. Jones boldly reinforce Hamlet’s themes of isolation and exposure and serve as both marvelous backdrop and frame for the action.
Where many actors fall into the traps of playing Hamlet far too over-the-top or like a naval-gazing introvert, Klingaman charts her own, steady course between those undesirable extremes. Her performance deepens and broadens as the play progresses until, at the end, she is as riveting and compelling a Hamlet as I have seen.
For being such a memorably tragic character, Ophelia doesn’t actually appear on stage very often. It is imperative, then, that the actress playing her succeeds in capturing the audience’s attention immediately and never lets it go. O’Hara, who impressed me tremendously in both The Comedy of Errors and Troilus and Cressida last CSF season, absolutely owns Ophelia. If your heart doesn’t break, at least just a skosh, when Ophelia goes mad with grief and kills herself, you’re a tougher tough guy than I.
Also returning from last year’s CSF, Lizcano once again earns some of the biggest reactions from the crowd. He stole virtually every scene in 2016’s Equivocation, and he’s as good if not better as Polonius.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I think this Hamlet is a rare treat.
On the Bill: Hamlet. Colorado Shakespeare Festival at the University of Colorado Boulder, www.coloradoshakes.org. Through Aug. 13.