Over the course of its sixty seasons, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (established in 1958) has produced Shakespeare’s most famous play eight times. This averages to a Hamlet per decade spanned except for the 1980s; in 1988, CSF double-dipped to capitalize on the then-popularity of Top Gun star Val Kilmer, who was cast as the eponymous Dane. Unsurprisingly, ticket sales soared and the Festival earned the Denver Drama Critics Circle’s “Best Season For a Company” prize.
This year’s Hamlet, number eight, may give the 1988 production a literal run for its money — as of a few days before opening night, non-balcony tickets in the indoor University Theatre weren’t available until August. That’s what happens when you celebrate your sixtieth year with an actress, Lenne Klingaman playing Hamlet.
As a woman.
While the dramaturg’s program notes elucidate that more than 200 women have taken on the role of Hamlet in the last 300 years (which sounds like a lot until you realize that tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of productions have been performed in that time), it wasn’t until the twentieth century that actresses began to play Hamlet as female. “Many of Hamlet’s qualities would have appeared feminine to an Elizabethan audience, including his penchant for melancholy and weeping and his erratic behavior,” the notes say. Fortunately, Klingaman and director Carolyn Howarth do not fall into that trap; this Hamlet rarely cries, and when she does, most notably in the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy, she seems to berate herself for it. Many a male Hamlet has shed far more angsty tears than this one.
From the start, snow falls on a gray and desolate set with pillar-like trees (or tree-like pillars) and logs that double as tables or chairs or headstones, whichever the scene requires. This is not a castle or wooded glen to be caught alone in. Setting aside the inherent creepiness and the literal and symbolic climate of rottenness and death, the bleak isolation proves Hamlet’s declaration that “Denmark’s a prison” a despairing truth rather than depressive hyperbole.
In Hamlet’s initial entrance, she rushes onstage, leaving a loud and apparently enthusiastic party, and sits, head in hand. She is dressed in a lovely gown which at first looks black but is revealed, when the lights fully come up, to be a deep purple — perfect for a character who is a grieving child first and a royal second. When she hears people coming, she gathers herself to lurk moodily in the background of the scene. Before words are even spoken, we know that she is upset but attempting to hide the extent.
What makes this Hamlet different from other productions with female leads is that Howarth made a specific choice to cast not only Hamlet but also Laertes and Fortinbras as women, “the formerly father-son relationships ... now all father-daughter,” as dramaturg Hadley Kamminga-Peck writes. And so Ophelia becomes one of several women with controlling father-figures.
These changes provide a unique twist on nearly all the relationships. Laertes (Ava Kostia) becomes a doting and wise older sister rather than an overprotective older brother; her advice to Ophelia about Hamlet seems to be a warning based on romantic experience rather than an attempt to keep those crazy feminine emotions in check. In fact, Laertes and Ophelia’s (Emelie O’Hara) giggly, teasing first scene with each other is adorable, making their eventual fates that much more tragic. They gang up on their father, Polonius (Rodney Lizcano, wonderfully unrecognizable several scenes later as the Gravedigger), by repeating his own advice as he recites it, including the famous “to thine own self be true”; it’s clear they’ve heard this same lecture before and would rather not sit through it again.
It’s unclear how close Hamlet and her mother are supposed to have been prior to her father’s death, but her betrayal and disgust toward Gertrude (Mare Trevathan) implies that she disapproves for different reasons than the classic patriarchal and Oedipal ones. In fact, Claudius’s (Gary Wright) order-disguised-as-request for Hamlet not to return to Wittenberg and his hug after Hamlet begrudgingly agrees carry a creepy, sexual undertone that is absent from traditional portrayals. While Hamlet may just dislike her uncle for obvious reasons, there are hints that fratricide and his “incestuous” marriage may not be his only crimes.
Hamlet’s friends are all male, but their characterizations don’t change because of her gender — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Michael Bouchard and Sean Scrutchins) are the same witless users as always, although they stand out from the background into which the pair sometimes fades, likely due to the fact that CSF is producing Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead later this season with the same cast. In their first scene, one of them (which one is which again?) enters flipping a coin, a clear reference to Stoppard. Jihad Milhem’s Horatio, too, remains the same loyal, platonic friend he usually is, but here he’s allowed a little more depth. He enters and exits with the mad Ophelia, her keeper for a time. He even sweetly sings along with her as he takes her flowers and leads her offstage. This interpretation gives Horatio something to do in Hamlet’s absence and creates a weightiness for a character whose main personality trait is Exposition Guy. (Though one wonders where he is when Ophelia drowns — picking up Hamlet from the docks, perhaps?)
But the highlight of the show comes in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. Hamlet and Ophelia are still lovers, except both of them happen to be women. (This is never treated as odd; Polonius’s objections seem to be aimed more at Hamlet’s personality and station than her or his daughter’s sexual orientation. Once again, Howarth avoids the low-hanging fruit.) Klingaman and O’Hara are fantastic together. The raw yet complex emotions are written clearly on each woman’s face — there are no manly emotional masks hiding true feelings here. Ophelia is a reluctantly obedient daughter, still smitten by her love; Hamlet is angry and hurt and betrayed and confused in turns. Klingaman’s “Get thee to a nunnery” is at first a warning to get away from the rottenness of Elsinore and Hamlet’s own absorbing revenge plot; after Ophelia returns her letters and gifts, the line becomes an anguished retort intended to cause pain. But the line becomes a worried warning when she realizes Ophelia is being used by her father to spy on him. O’Hara’s confusion throughout is wonderful, as she becomes frightened that the woman she loves is losing her sanity and pushing her away. At the emotional climax, Ophelia ends up comforting a spiraling Hamlet, holding and kissing her until she calms, in spite of all that came before. Once Hamlet gathers herself, the final “to a nunnery” is clearly an attempt to save Ophelia — please, leave this horrible prison of a place and save yourself. The audience is left feeling vaguely voyeuristic, and Claudius and Polonius seem to have completely missed the point of what they just overheard.
All the pronouns for the female characters have been changed to she/her, all the “Lord”s to “Lady”s, and so forth. Despite the apparent threat to Shakespeare’s scansion, no rhythms sound glaringly off, although some puns, such as Hamlet’s “I am too much i’ the sun,” lose their double meaning. But while several jokes are lost, many are created — Hamlet’s declaration that “man delights not me” elicits a giggle from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and her follow-up of “no, nor woman neither” comes off as a good-natured defense against the type of teasing only old friends who know your romantic history can get away with. Thankfully, Horatio’s famous line, “Good night, sweet prince” is left alone; whether due to the line’s rhythm, its fame, or society’s sexist baggage, a gender change just wouldn’t have the same ring to it.
Surprisingly, the impression left after the fall of the curtain is: traditional. The performances are all good, Klingaman’s Hamlet is excellent and avoids the major pitfalls of the role, some relationships are given an interesting subtle twist, but mostly it feels like ... Hamlet. Even the costumes seem to indicate a broad applicability. They aren’t burdened by anything as plebeian as time — the royals and Polonius look like they stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, the Gravedigger and Players are somewhat Dickensian, Laertes (who wears an aviatrix hat and goggles in one scene) and Ophelia would be at home on Prince Edward Island with Anne Shirley, the performing Players look like they belong in the original Globe Theatre, and Horatio in his three-piece suit could have been plucked off the street outside.
And maybe that universality is the point. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most famous play for a reason. Perhaps it could be set in any time, in any place, with a male or female lead in an array of platonic, familial, and romantic relationships, and it would still be Hamlet — a tragic story of murder and power, revenge and justice, honor and indecision. Hopefully over the next sixty years, CSF will continue to test that theory.