These last few seasons have been full of misguided attempts at casting against type; overenthusiastic directors have cluttered their productions with so many reverse-casting surprises that the play becomes lost in the novelty and the audience’s appreciation is more for the artifice than for the enlightenment.
But Footsteps Theatre’s all-female production of Hamlet has avoided this problem. The cast–speaking in their natural vocal ranges, with their body contours evident–quickly take on the intellectual neutrality of characters, i.e. representations in dramatic form of philosophical concepts far removed from mundane gender differences and sophomoric Freudianisms. One may, I suppose, attribute special insights and nuances to old words spoken in new voices, but Footsteps also graciously permits one the option of not doing so.
Footsteps’ production has plenty of originality without calling attention to its performers. Director Deya Friedman has chosen to emphasize the generational conflicts of this most dysfunctional of royal families, making it a sort of “Hamlet N the Hood.” The authority figures–dominating Claudius, passive Gertrude, dithering Polonius–are presented as irresponsible parents, too absorbed in their own selfish interests to take note of their offspring’s distress. Hamlet’s sidekicks–Horatio the bookworm, Laertes the jock, Ophelia the babe, Rosencrance and Guildensterne the class clowns–are extreme in their emotions and actions, inexperienced in the hypocrisy and rationalization their elders practice so skillfully. Hamlet emerges as a youth caught between loyalty to the memory of his real father and acceptance of a stepfather who has usurped the patriarchal position.
By all rights this highly unconventional interpretation should grow ludicrous and banal. But the consistency and conviction in this production prevent its distracting the audience from Shakespeare’s observations on the consequences of houses in disorder. Friedman has streamlined the script, frequently moving speeches from one scene to another, and has apparently instructed her actors to dispense with the usual declamatory flourishes in favor of a more relaxed, almost colloquial delivery. If this causes them to sometimes gallop through poetic passages, or if an occasional midwestern pronunciation falls like a dropped brick into the Elizabethan diction (“fergive” for “forgive” or “tuh” for “to”), the overall effect is still to make the narrative clear and comprehensible.
As played by Julia Fabris, Hamlet displays not only the princely virtues of courage, chivalry, and compassion but also an engaging sense of humor (theatergoers who can sing along with the “rogue and peasant slave” speech are in for a pleasant surprise). Maureen Michael gives Claudius a regal bearing and a chief-executive ruthlessness, while Michelle Dahmer makes Gertrude the picture of codependence. Other noteworthy performances include those of Jean Adamak as a rough-and-ready Laertes still sensitive enough to try to cover up his crazed sister, wandering half- naked in her madness; Debra Rodkin as the dotty yenta Polonius, though her character’s mannerisms sometimes tend to obscure her speeches; Vita Dennis as a word- and skull-juggling grave digger; and the team of Letitia Hicks and Mary Anderson as Rosencrance and Guildensterne, as jolly a pair of school chums as a rich kid from a troubled family could want. Sraa Davidson’s set and costumes look a bit Egyptian for 14th-century Denmark but make for a harmonious stage picture.
Footsteps Theatre’s vigorous, up-and-at-’em production may not be the perfect Hamlet, if such a thing exists. But it’s a big step toward taking cross-gender casting out of the arena of gimmickry and classroom exercise.