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Crossing Gender: The Great Lakes Theater production of Hamlet with Double-Casting Hot

Yuko Kurahashi
Written by Yuko Kurahashi     April 14, 2017    
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Crossing Gender: The Great Lakes Theater production of Hamlet with Double-Casting

Photos: Roger Mastroianni

  • Hamlet
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Great Lakes Theater
  • March 31-April 15, 2017
Acting 5
Costumes 5
Sets 5
Directing 5
Overall 5

The Great Lakes Theater production of Hamlet entertains and challenges the audience with the double-casting of Laura Welsh Berg and Jonathan Dyrud (both play Rosencrantz on their off-days) in the title role, offering different interpretations of one of the most complex characters in Shakespeare's work. I attended both performances with Welsh Berg and Dyrud as Hamlet.

Welsh Berg's Hamlet portrays this tormented character more in line with the two tragic female characters, Ophelia and Gertrude. Both women are, like Hamlet, trapped in political intrigues; Ophelia by her ambitious father Polonius and brother Laertes and Gertrude as a political pawn for Claudius, her late husband's brother and murderer. Welsh Berg's Hamlet is caught in filial duty and affection for Ophelia and Gertrude, yet driven by his own need to find truth. What the audience sees in Welsh Berg's Hamlet is a university-educated "philosopher" who is captivated by his own psychology and intrigue. Berg’s clear focus on the character’s mission allows her to create a Hamlet who is capable of almost following through on his plan of avenging the murder of his father. Welsh Berg maintains a calm and calculative demeanor, suggesting that he could have become a fine king of Denmark. Welsh Berg also illuminates a compassionate side of the character in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene.

Dyrud's Hamlet is more volatile, expressing his frustration, anger, and sorrow through gestures and movement. For example, he swings his legs while talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He walks on the rails of the lower galleries as he speaks. He is so consumed by his emotion that he does not seem to keep track of his initial intention. This might be a more traditional interpretation of this tormented soul.

David Anthony Smith's portrayal of Claudius strikes me as a bit too "nice" a king without even a hint of viciousness. Dougfred Miller's Polonius, who dresses like Thomas Cromwell with a Tudor bonnet and lawyer's gown, is an Elizabethan Machiavelli. Yet, Miller filled his lines with humor. He explains Hamlet’s condition to Gertrude: “Madam, I swear I use no art at all. That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity." Polonius preaches the Players:“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral...” These lines drew laughter from the audience.

Laura Perrotta’s Gertrude is cold and distanced, giving the impression that the queen has given up her autonomy to Claudius’s intrigue for a long time. Erin Partin’s Ophelia is at first reserved and composed, but after she loses her mind due to her father’s death at the hand of Hamlet, she becomes disheveled and incoherent. Nick Steen, as Laertes, portrays a noble kinsman with intelligence and integrity.

Director Charles Fee underscores the humor and absurdity in this tragedy. For example, there are three instances in which Marcellus (Aled Davies) and Horatio (Christopher Tocco) are asked by Hamlet to swear to secrecy. First, Hamlet asks them to keep the sighting of the king's ghost (Lynn Robert Berg) to themselves. Second, the ghost of King Hamlet, in echoing voice, makes them swear not to reveal anything they saw. Then Hamlet makes Marcellus and Horatio swear they will not reveal his plans for revenge. The ghost's thunderous voice and Marcellus and Horatio’s bewilderment, as well as the repeats of Hamlet’s invitation to secrecy invited laughter in both performances.

Set designer Russell Metheny re-configured the Hanna Theatre (a proscenium/thrust stage) into the Globe Theatre by increasing the depth of the thrust stage and adding galleries onstage. With two chandeliers and multiple (electric) candle lights, the stage becomes a replica of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe Theatre's indoor theatre. When the chandeliers are raised, the action is set outdoors. Part of the audience is seated on stage in the first level gallery area which looks like a jury box, giving the drama a courtroom feel.

Lighting designer Rick Martin uses blue and purple colors, for some outdoor scenes, suggesting the cold atmosphere of Denmark in which “something is rotten.” Great Lakes Theater, unlike the Globe, uses recorded music (sound designed by Matthew Webb) to accompany the production, mainly soft piano music including Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies.

Kim Krumm Sorenson's costumes evoke the aura of Elizabethan period costumes (also the tradition of the Globe Theatre). According to a program note, Sorenson's inspiration ranged from Tudor-era portraits by court painter Hans Holbein to contemporary runway fashion (which inspired her to design Ophelia’s simple white dress with a shawl). The traits of characters are suggested through their costumes. Gertrude wears dense dresses in scarlet tone, while Ophelia keeps cream and white tones. The costumes of Hamlet and Laertes, two pivotal figures of the "parallel revenge plots" (program note), are modifications of nineteenth-century costumes, including Laertes's long navy-blue military coat and black boots and Hamlet's black cloak, pants and black boots.

Fee’s Hamlet ends with the deaths of Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet without the entrance of Fortinbras. This emphasizes Hamlet as a family tragedy in which one “murder” leads to a blood-spilled “living room.” The double-casting of Hamlet adds complex meanings to this family drama, offering multiple interpretations of the Bard’s masterpiece about justice and revenge.

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