Last month Center Stage brought us an all-female As You Like It, and now Cohesion Theatre Company has produced a gender-blind production of Shakespeare’s most challenging play, Hamlet.
Hamlet is played by a woman, Caitlin Carbone – and the character is portrayed as a woman; female pronouns are used. Women also play Laertes and Horatio, though those characters remain male. I’ll get to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a minute.
Women have been portraying Hamlet at least since Sarah Siddons in 1775. Sarah Bernhardt is probably the best known, but there have been many others -- including some who portrayed the troubled Dane as female.
Of course, good actors should be able to play, well, just about anything. And, Caitlin Carbone delivers a solid, thoughtful performance as the heir to the Danish throne.
Her Hamlet starts out grief-stricken by the sudden death of her father and stunned by her mother’s quick marriage to the dead king’s brother. Carbone’s Hamlet isn’t indecisive or crazy; she’s mournful and angry.
When this Hamlet learns that her uncle murdered her father, she’s forced into a role she doesn’t want, but takes on with increasing fury, exemplified by the ardor that turns to outrage when Carbone’s Hamlet rejects Sarah Lamar’s sweet, fragile Ophelia.
If referring to Hamlet as “she” takes a little getting used to, that’s not director Alice Stanley’s only liberty. She sets the play in disaffected, 1990s, grunge Seattle. Hamlet bears a distinct likeness to Kurt Cobain, sports torn jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a moody, rebellious frame of mind.
Hamlet’s college friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are portrayed by women manipulating puppets – Muppet-like creations with identical, white featureless heads that resemble Kermit.
Odd as this sounds, it’s actually clever. After all, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the metaphorical puppets of Hamlet’s evil uncle, and their interchangeability inspired a Tom Stoppard play.
Alice Stanley also adopts the clever practice of casting a single actor (in this case, Martin Ealy) as the ghost of Hamlet’s father and his murderous brother, Claudius – emphasizing the extremes of human nature these men represent.
Not everything is this effective. The audience sits on either side of a runway-style playing space. The configuration increases immediacy, but because the seats aren’t on risers, the action that’s staged low to the ground is barely visible beyond the front row.
And yes, there are still conventional moments, including the dark comic relief supplied by a pair of gravediggers, played by Lyle Smythers and Jeff Miller.
Overall, however, Cohesion has taken some bold risks, even if few of the other performances are up to the level of Caitlin Carbone’s Hamlet. The gritty humanity she brings to the role keeps the audience involved – though she increasingly races through her lines.
The New York Times recently published a roundup of productions, concerts and exhibits honoring the upcoming 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Cohesion Theatre’s “Hamlet” made it onto a very short list that also includes the Globe in London, the Stratford Festival in Canada and the Sante Fe Opera.
Heady company. Cohesion’s "Hamlet" may not always hit the mark, but in terms of inspired audacity, it certainly deserves credit.
Cohesion Theatre Company’s production of “Hamlet” continues at the Church on the Square in Canton through March 20th.