Review: Women Playing Hamlet
By Perry Tannenbaum
Written and premiered in an era when only men could perform on stage, Hamlet has been performed many times with the finest actresses of their day in the title role. Poetic justice, playwright William Missouri Downs will tell you in his Women Playing Hamlet, since Shakespeare’s magnum opus is a revenge tragedy. Compounding this revenge – and attracting the notice of Charlotte’s Chickspeare banditas and Donna Scott Productions – Downs has decreed that all roles in his comedy, regardless of gender, shall be played by women.
Braininess and silliness play well together at Charlotte Art League, where Donna Scott Productions previously mustered the oddball Civil War re-enactors of Shiloh Rules and the eccentric Amish of The Book of Liz. Most of the cast gathered by director Tonya Bludsworth have performed with both Donna Scott and the Chix before.
Oddballs abound here as well. The most stressed, conflicted, and self-doubting of these is Jessica Ostergaard, who has had the awesome role of Hamlet unexpectedly thrust upon her – despite a résumé that includes a killed-off character in the Young and the Restless and a flicker of a cameo in a Tarantino film (also dying). Everyone in New York who advises Jessica on this prodigious undertaking, whether the advice is solicited or not, tells her that she is too young to play Hamlet. And every one of these opinions has a certain amount of credibility, since everyone on Manhattan Island has an MFA in Acting, from your lowly Starbucks barkeep on up to your legendary acting guru.
Glynnis O’Donoghue has always had a look that mixes determined pluckiness and confused vulnerability, so she is always as perfect a Jessica as director Bludsworth could hope for. She soaks up the pithy pointers with the eagerness of a puppy and absorbs discouraging words with the most endearing and pathetic pout, one that still retains a glint of chin-up determination.
Downs layers on interesting reasons why Jessica should identify with the brooding Danish Prince. At her father’s funeral, we learn that Jessica’s mom announced her intent to marry her uncle. Somehow that doesn’t sound quite so sinister when the announcement is made in a folksy Minnesota accent, don’t-you-know.
That tawdry revelation allows Sheila Snow Proctor, as Minnesota Mother, to steal one scene from O’Donoghue in a flashback. More often, Proctor regally sports a turban, à la Norma Desmond, as Jessica’s acting guru. This imperious Gwen terrifies Jessica with her frank appraisals and such rigid dogmas as “Hamlet is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of plays.” If this formula reminds you of the TV actor haunted by John Barrymore in Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, a very popular comedy in the early 1990’s, then you have the gist.
Nonetheless, Snow gets maximum mileage out of her scenes with the cringing O’Donoghue, because she maintains a stony hauteur that defies contradiction. And she is far from Jessica’s only tormentor. Tania Kelly, Vivian T Howell, and Andrea King all play five different roles along Jessica’s bumbling odyssey – with at least two apiece that are standouts. Howell is best as the Starbucks know-it-all and as Gwen’s other student, a ditzy model content to be patronized.
King and Kelly draw more eccentric assignments. As Jessica’s young niece Emily, a very immature Pippi Longstocking-ish Minnesotan, King unwillingly accompanies Jessica to the theater and gets the aspiring actress in trouble with Patrick Stewart during the movie star’s attempt at Hamlet. After disrupting the performance, damage control doesn’t go so well for Jessica at first, compounding Stewart’s rage against texting and tweeting. King’s other triumph is Lord Derby, a renowned Shakespearean scholar in his dotage.
Kelly hardly needs to do more than walk onstage to draw laughs, but she is especially memorable as a more shambling and déclassé academic, Jessica’s Humanities Professor, a veritable fount of dubious information. But Kelly surpasses herself as the Gravedigger, a scene where Downs gives us glints of Shakespearean depth. For a brief moment, we’re outside the hustle and bustle of Broadway and the ephemera of actors’ pretensions.
Chuck Bludworth’s projection slides underscore the web-based slickness and superficiality of the city. With no lack of self-esteem whatsoever, Gwen and the two academics manage to amuse us while educating us about the melancholy Dane and the women who have played him. But the dimly lit graveyard scene is something different. In this wilderness, Downs’s comedy and Shakespeare’s tragedy intermingle, for the two gravediggers in the Bard’s script were actually called Clowns in the dramatis personae. Somehow, Kelly’s portrayal makes me wish to see her tossing Yorick’s skull one day.