Are there any words left to describe the brooding Dane “Hamlet,” brought to life hundreds of years ago by William Shakespeare?
There’s at least one, thanks to the Santa Cruz Shakespeare company which opened its second 2016 offering last Friday in its handsome new venue in DeLaveaga Park.
The word? Female.
Yes, it sometimes seems odd to watch Princess Hamlet suddenly put a lip lock on the fair Ophelia, but, for the most part, director Paul Mullins succeeds in uni-sexing his players, all the while combining substance, forthrightness and a surprising sprinkling of humor.
Much of that is due to the stellar Kate Eastwood Norris as the troubled daughter, still mourning the sudden death of her beloved father mixed with confusion and anger that her mother then married her father’s brother, Claudius, just two months after the King’s demise.
Norris has an understated way of combining her feminine graces with more masculine traits without sacrificing either. But she is steadfast in her love of her late father, King Hamlet, especially after she is visited by his ghost, who asks Hamlet to revenge his untimely death. All that fury bubbles up when she treats Ophelia (a rather placid Mia Ellis) poorly. Later, she believes it’s her uncle Claudius (a subtle performance by Bernard K. Addison, who also doubles as his ghostly brother) who is hiding in Queen Gertrude’s closet. (Carol Halstead plays Gertrude as both sensual and motherly.) So Hamlet mistakenly puts her sword through Ophelia’s long-winded, gossipy mother Polonius (also cast cross-gender and played with subtle humor by Patty Gallagher).
Obviously this production – really no production – of “Hamlet” is not without its share of tragedy and death.
But at least in Act 1, this version seems to be a shade wittier. Polonius’s familiar speech to her son, Laertes (an intense Cody Nickell) seems livelier and more contradictory than usual. When Hamlet’s two school cohorts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Mart Cavett and Katherine Ko), show up, Norris’s Hamlet amusingly shouts “woo woo woo,” then toys with them a little until she realizes that King Claudius has summoned them to spy on her.
Gradually Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with a seething resentment of all that has transformed her life. From then on, other than confiding in her only true friend Horatio (a sadly underused Mike Ryan), she is focused on revenge. But another funny bit occurs (mostly because here Hamlet is a woman) when she grabs Horatio for a long, hearty hug, then quickly cautions him, “Don’t think too much of this.”
Probably the most famous “light” moment in “Hamlet” comes when Claudius demands to know where Hamlet has hidden Polonius’s body. Hamlet says she’s “at supper,” then adds “…not where she eats, but where she is eaten.” Later, the gravedigger scene is diverting and full of humorous moralizing, and Brian Smolin is refreshingly hilarious in his short scene as Osric.
It’s likely everyone already knows the outcome of Shakespeare’s longest and best-known tale. Yet it’s always fascinating to watch how it all “plays” out, so to speak.
As Act 2 begins, Hamlet tells a troupe of actors how she wants them to perform a story about a King’s untimely murder – so that she can observe Claudius’s reactions and determine whether he is guilty of killing her father.
But Claudius, fearing for his life, sends Hamlet off to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And then poor Ophelia drowns. Laertes returns and the King tells him that Hamlet is responsible for both his mother’s and his sister’s death. Well, what’s a brother to do but seek payback?
Hamlet, meantime, returns home in time to observe Ophelia’s funeral. Obviously, all is not well and does not end well, but, it’s still a deliciously disastrous final scene.
Scenic designer Collette Pollard here creates six very tall, narrow pillars, all wrapped in white. They’re used to great advantage in many scenes to allow silhouettes to show through, to display a rainbow of subtle colors and, at times, to illuminate lovely patterns of tree leaves.
Most scenes use a minimum of props, but opening up the trap door for the gravedigger (a disarmingly warm Larry Paulsen) to dig Ophelia’s grave works well as does the long white banner spread on the floor for the fencing scene.
It’s interesting to realize that Hamlet’s clothing gradually tilts more toward masculinity, and when she feigns her own version of madness, she progressively becomes wildly unkempt and scruffy.
B. Modern’s costumes work beautifully for a female Hamlet, and the gorgeous flowing white robe worn by Addison as the ghost is sheer perfection. Many of the other characters’ costumes jump all over the place from Shakespearean times to satin evening gowns reminiscent of the ’30s, to white buck shoes and modern men’s tuxedoes.
All are lovely, yet together they seem a shade incongruous.
Kent Dorsey’s lighting and Rodolfo Ortega (for both sound and music composition) are first rate.
One suggestion to directors of future plays at the Grove: It’s difficult for patrons sitting in the front center of the audience to twist around enough to see characters who stand directly behind them to say some lines. Best to at least put them to one side to prevent neck injuries.
All trifles, of course, because this “Hamlet” is another milestone for SCS as well as for gender equality. Let’s hear it for the Princess of Denmark!
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ‘HAMlet’
Presented by: Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Directed by: Paul Mullins
When: Through Aug. 28
Where: The Grove at DeLaveaga Park. 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz
Tickets: $40 to $52 general; $36 to $48 seniors 62 and over and military; $16 students and youth under 18.