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Big Dawg Production’s current offering of Women Playing Hamlet is a relentlessly funny, irreverent odyssey into absurdity. The show is centered around a protagonist crushed by the existential weight of playing Shakespeare’s most celebrated character in a world that worships Shakespeare and reveres Hamlet.
The subject of Shakespeare is fertile ground for satire; it has been hundreds of years since the Bard’s canonization as the most important writer in Western theatre. The mythological and religious reverence around Shakespeare has only grown since. Even some of the most celebrated actors of the stage and screen, from Kenneth Branagh to Helen Mirren to Judi Dench to Laurence Olivier, talk about Shakespeare with an almost-cosmic awe. Hamlet in particular, debatably Shakespeare's greatest work, has a daunting reputation as the master’s masterpiece. Despite Shakespeare being fertile ground for satire, actually writing good satire is hard. Balancing reverence and irreverence is one of the most difficult tasks in comedy, too much one way lacks bite and too much the other way feels hollow. Connect this last statement to Women Playing Shakespeare: does it strike this balance successfully?
Playwright William Missouri Downs tackles the looming presence of the Bard, and finds a satirical anchor, by pointing out an inherent absurdity: How can one playwright who has been dead for hundreds of years still spark this much devotion? How are there entire schools for the study of his work alone? Why does every person on the street have hot takes and opinions about the meaning of Hamlet?
To answer these questions, Downs crafts a story of a young woman, Jessica, a struggling actor who finds herself cast as Hamlet. Burdened by the weight of the role, Jessica embarks on a spiritual quest to better understand the character. She hires a Shakespearean acting coach, she goes to see a therapist in character as Hamlet, she explores her own past to find personal connections to the character, and struggles to memorize the play. Downs structures Women Playing Hamlet like Alice in Wonderland, sending our confused protagonist on a bizarre journey through the Shakespeare-shaped world in which we live. As she navigates this world, it only seems to get more bizarre and its expectations of her only seem to grow. Like a diver trying to reach the bottom of the ocean, the pressure of her voyage threatens to crush her before she can reach its conclusion. Wrestling with the question, if some of the most influential actors in theatre and film have struggled to play Hamlet, then what is a young woman recently graduated with an MFA in Acting to do?
Wonderland is nothing without its denizens, and the supporting cast was fantastic. I must applaud director Beth Swindell for leading a cast to be comfortable enough to take risks and have a lot of fun in the process.
The play's structure of increasing levels of absurdity starts with Jessica’s friends and peers, who all think she’s too young for the part (in one of the play's hilarious running jokes, this sentiment is shared by almost every character she encounters, even during dreams sequences and flashbacks). Then there are random mail couriers and figments of her imagination, characters that are all larger than life but somehow find ways to get even larger, with a contagious energy.
Except for Jace Carlyle Berry (as Jessica) and Erin Hunter (as Gwen, the acting coach), the cast members play multiple parts: actor Addison Hamlet, for example, plays Jessica’s friend, Betty, a Starbucks barista; Rosy, her former co-star from The Young and the Restless; and a Home Shopping Network model (in a truly hilarious one-scene gag). These exaggerated characters contrast with Jessica’s dry, earthy sarcasm and growing levels of exhaustion.
Lydia Watkins, Shawn Sproatt, La’Tuan Dupra, Arianna Tysinger, and Susan Auten all deserve a shout out as well for their performances. Some of the characters these actors portrayed were so different from each other that I was surprised when I saw the small size of the cast at the final bow.
The exception to the crazy spiral is acting coach Gwen. She starts off like all the rest, larger than life and absurd, but actually grows more dimensional as the play goes on, almost becoming a reflection of Jessica herself by the end. Gwen is the most focused part aside from Jessica, and Hunter played the role exceptionally well.
As the lead, Berry has been tasked with guiding us through Jessica's confounding world while perpetually playing its "straight-woman," the person to whom everything happens. Berry played the part with the dry wit of a Kevin Smith, Elaine May, or a Coen Brothers protagonist, a person trying to make sense of an absurd situation who is increasingly frustrated by the situation’s refusal to make sense. Additionally, Jessica is a character who struggles to know and be comfortable with herself playing a role that requires an almost-naked understanding of self. The audience witnesses an actress playing an actress struggling with playing the leading role in a masterpiece. Until watching Women Playing Hamlet, I genuinely had not considered that the existential angst of playing Hamlet in a contemporary context is equivalent to that of Hamlet himself. This turns Women Playing Hamlet into a metatextual reimagining of Hamlet in a really clever way. Emphasized by truly funny callbacks to Hamlet, such as the arrival of Jessica’s friend Rosy and Gilda, a scene contemplating skulls in a graveyard, and the revelation that Jessica’s mother did indeed marry her uncle after her father’s death.
The technical side of the production had the same fun and irreverence but subtle brilliance as the performances, direction, and script. Stephanie Scheu Aman’s costume design contrasted Jessica’s wardrobe, which felt like "normal" clothes, with the rest of the cast's, who wore costumes. The use of literal PowerPoint slides, projected onstage to explain important information about the world or characters, was one of the funniest aspects of the staging, especially when combined with the minimalist set and the use of verbal scene painting. Jessica and her mother crouching in a pretend closet in the middle of the stage while a PowerPoint projection explains who her uncle is — a striking comic tableau. Shane Jackson’s lighting is a delicate final touch, subtle enough not to be noticed but complimenting the production from scene to scene with an effortless grace.
As the show ends on Jessica finally delivering the famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy, finally understanding the words in all their poetry and meaning, Women Playing Hamlet feels as if it has taken Shakespeare apart to put him back together again. Though its tone is comic, the play ultimately guides its viewers to, like Jessica, better understand Hamlet and Shakespeare not as distant masterworks but on a personal level.
Women Playing Hamlet continues through Sunday, April 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.