The Undiscovered Country: First Presbyterian Theater’s All-Female “Hamlet”

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There are many reasons why a theater director might want to produce an all-female production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 2018.

But Thom Hofrichter’s reasons are entirely practical.

The interest in Shakespeare among female actors hereabouts is inversely proportionate to the number of roles available.

Translation: Too many great female actors, not enough female roles.

One solution is to be less strict about gender specificity.

Hofrichter, the minister of drama at First Presbyterian Theater, said the meaning of Shakespeare’s work doesn’t really change when a director plays fast and loose with time, gender, nation and/or setting.

“If you put him in Elizabethan times verses putting him in the 1920s,” he said, “it really doesn’t matter. The wisdom and the humanity is there.

“I have seen ‘Hamlets’ where they whip out guns,” he said. “It comes down to how humans behave and Shakespeare does that better than anyone else. Why shouldn’t women have a chance to play some of the greatest roles ever written?”

Why not, indeed?

In fact, there is a rich tradition in theater of women playing the lead role in this play.

Sarah Bernhardt, a French actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who was as famous in her time as Helen Mirren is in ours, played Hamlet on stage and screen.

”I cannot see Hamlet as a man,” the New York Times quoted Bernhardt as saying. ”The things he says, his impulses, his actions, entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.”

Local actress Kate Black, who may be Fort Wayne’s Helen Mirren, is playing Claudius in the upcoming First Presbyterian Theater production.

Black is no stranger to gender-switch Shakespeare. She played the title role of Othello in a First Presbyterian Theater production of that play in 2000.

And she played Gertrude, the wife of the character she is now playing, in a 1999 Civic Theatre production of “Hamlet.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” Black said of playing Claudius. “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to climb into the character because he’s such an evil guy. He’s such a slime bucket, such a politician.”

Playing Claudius has helped Black understand the play better.

“It is such a wonderful and interesting thing to be coming at it from such a different angle,” she said. “A much more acrimonious angle.

“From a purely selfish standpoint,’ Black said, “it’s such a joy to have the opportunity to put my arms around character as large and well fleshed-out as this role is.”

An all-female cast exudes a different energy than a mixed cast, Black said.

The challenge for this particular all-female cast, she said, has been to strike a balance between hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine interpretations of the characters.

There are a number of lines that have suddenly become problematic in this context – “Frailty, they name is woman,” “’Tis unmanly grief,” etc. – and the actors have to figure out how to deliver them.

One of the singular pleasures of being involved in this production, Black said, is that every actor brings intense passion to her role and to Shakespeare’s work in general.

“I would say that every single person who comes to rehearsal every night is invested in making it as good as they can make it,” she said. “You always really want that.”

It was a natural affinity for Shakespeare’s words that convinced Hofricher to cast Halee Bandt as Hamlet.

“I never thought I would get an opportunity to play this role,” Bandt said. “I do love Shakespeare. I have loved the entirety of his work since I was a teenager. I was one of those nerdy kids who liked it when no one else did.”

Hamlet remains one of the most divisive characters in theater. Scholars and thespians still argue over his merits and failings, rarely agreeing on which is which.

Bandt said she sees Hamlet as an intellectual thrust into a situation that does not call for an intellectual.

“At the root of it, at the end of the day, Hamlet is an overanalytical overthinker,” she said. “He is a thinker who has been put into a situations that demands action. That causes all the turmoil we see in the play.”

“Hamlet” is one of the few thinkers in western theater whose thought processes are there for the audience to see, Bandt said.

“If to think is feminine, then Hamlet is feminine,” Hofrichter said. “Hamlet is someone who usually does not act rashly. It’s kind of ironic that the one point he does act rashly – because literary people are always busting his chops for not being a man of action – he kills the wrong guy.”

“It’s not unlike when you take quick action, you might actually attack the wrong country,” he said. “There’s a lesson there. Slow methodicalness is not necessarily a bad thing.”

As Hamlet, Bandt said she and Tara Olivero as Laertes get to engage in the traditionally male theatrical activity of fighting with swords.

“How often do two women in theater – or on film, for that matter – get to engage in truly physical combat?” she said.

Bandt shares the stage in this production with some of Fort Wayne’s greatest actresses and she said it’s been quite an education.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I sat down for our first table read, and I am just listening to their voices speaking this text. I thought to myself, ‘How lucky am I to be with these women and we’re all working on the same thing?

“They have such a natural grasp of this text,” Bandt said. “And they make such beautiful sense of the language. Just being around them, I pick things up. Their home is on the stage. They feel very natural up there. They actively listen. It’s just a lot of fun.”

The challenge of casting Shakespeare, Hofrichter said, is finding actors who can bridge the gap between the play’s language and the audience’s understanding.

“This idea of – I don’t want to say translating Shakespeare, because that’s not quite it,” he said. “But interpreting Shakespeare in a certain way. Part one is the actor has to know exactly what they are saying with all the implications. Part two is ‘How do those words come out of your mouth?’ and ‘How is your body reinforcing the meaning so the audience understands?’”

The cast of “Hamlet” is uniquely suited to these aims, Hofrichter said.

Hofrichter doesn’t think there is any one way to look at “Hamlet” because it’s one of those puzzles where perspective changes interpretation.

“It’s like that old story about the three blind men who touch different parts of an elephant and come up with wildly differing descriptions,” he said. “In some ways, that’s ‘Hamlet.’ It’s the first piece of dramatic writing to do that. And I’m not sure it’s not still the best piece of dramatic writing to do that.”

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