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Hamlet at the Great Lakes Theater

Elizabeth Zeman Kolkovich (Ohio State University, Mansfield)

Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater, a regional company dedicated to bringing “the pleasure, power and relevance of classic theater to the widest possible audience,” rarely performs Shakespeare in early modern dress and tends to set productions in modern eras. [1] But for the seventh Hamlet in its history, the company costumed actors in Elizabethan dress and transformed its thrust stage into a semi-Globe or Blackfriars Theater to focus instead on its “dual Hamlets,” one male and one female, who alternated performances.

In his program notes, Director Charles Fee speculates that the role of Hamlet transcends any one interpretation, and he suggests that alternating Hamlets might reveal the character’s “divided soul.” But the two Hamlets produced a substantially different effect. The presence of another Hamlet on a different night encouraged the audience to understand the character as multi-faceted, but the two versions advanced a single interpretation of Hamlet as an antic character implicated in his culture’s misogyny. As the two Hamlets presumably urged a more intense focus on the title character, the production actually implied that Hamlet’s personality and actions might not matter to the play’s unfolding or the world around him.

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Laura Perrotta as Gertrude and Jonathan Dyrud as Hamlet. Photo by Roger Mastroianni. Courtesy of the Great Lakes Theater.

The two actors playing Hamlet seem to have worked together to achieve similar portrayals. Laura Welsh Berg’s Hamlet was the shortest person on stage, and Berg raised her arms and jumped on benches to make herself appear physically larger. The very tall Jonathan Dyrud crouched and sat to diminish his stature. Both Hamlets were playful and always jesting. They laughed when the Ghost’s “Swear” terrified the others on stage, they savored their trickster role during the Mousetrap, and they played many lines for laughs with a manic, even acrobatic energy.

There was one substantial difference. Through side grins and changes in posture, Berg’s Hamlet, who seemed more focused on revenge, made clear that he was playing at madness for Polonius’ sake. At one moment, he made a strange noise and smiled when Polonius (Dougfred Miller) reacted with concern. But Dyrud’s Hamlet was so grief-stricken with convincing mood swings that he appeared not to be in full possession of his senses. He could not be still. His jilted, paranoid movements, matched with a voice that skipped from high pitches to lower registers, made him seem scattered and erratic. When he said “I am but mad north northwest” with wild eyes in 2.2, his claim to pretended madness was unconvincing. [2] This relative madness might be connected to the actors’ relative interaction with the audience: Berg’s Hamlet delivered several lines to the audience, while Dyrud’s Hamlet remained more distanced and inwardly focused.

When each actor was not playing Hamlet, he or she played Rosencrantz instead. Those familiar with the company or the production’s other version saw a ghost of Prince Hamlet in this minor character, and the effect felt somewhat unsettling. Rosencrantz became a figure tied to unachieved potential and alternative narratives. In other words, if this were a slightly different story on another day, he would be the hero.

To achieve a running time of two hours and forty minutes, the production made some familiar cuts, including Osric and Fortinbras. It made no claim to a political statement but focused on Hamlet’s familial and personal relationships. The two Hamlets had slightly different relationships with Gertrude (Laura Perrotta) and Ophelia (Erin Partin), as Dryud’s Hamlet seemed more emotionally attached to Ophelia and more distant from Gertrude than did Berg’s Hamlet. Yet the resulting effect was the same: Hamlet treated these women poorly.

In both versions, Ophelia was present (unbeknownst to Hamlet) for his entire “to be or not to be” soliloquy in 3.1. She stood upstage, sinking back against the arras as if she hoped to vanish into it, while Hamlet spoke to the audience. After she stepped forward and he noticed her, their exchanges were emotionally intense. She shakingly tried to give back his letters, and he kissed her passionately with one hand gently on her cheek. When Hamlet ran to the arras to exit, Ophelia gasped. He stopped and looked at the curtain, understanding that someone else was listening, and then asked pointedly, “Where’s your father?” Hamlet yelled the rest of his lines in angry desperation, with the exception of “It hath made me mad” (3.1.146), which he delivered earnestly with a little cry. In this scene and others, Ophelia appeared physically submissive and sometimes nearly invisible, as she hid in plain sight. Both Ophelia and Gertrude often sat or stood at the side of the stage, a positioning that emphasized how they remained in the margins. As they walked the perimeter of the stage, men talked center stage.

Erin Partin’s Ophelia gave an especially moving mad scene. Wearing a white nightgown with a brown velvet shawl and with loose, messy hair, Ophelia looked admiringly at Gertrude’s wedding ring as she spoke of marriage and sex. She patted her stomach as if pregnant when saying “all will be well. We must be patient” (4.5.66), and when her brother entered, she handed him the same bundle of letters she tried to return to Hamlet. Claudius (David Anthony Smith) seemed wrong when he insisted that her father’s death caused her madness; instead, her madness resulted from her love for Hamlet and his neglect of her.

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Erin Partin as Ophelia. Photo by Roger Mastroianni. Courtesy of the Great Lakes Theater.

Perhaps because Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes (Nick Steen) were so well acted and because their interactions provided the most comic and poignant moments of the production, their family’s loving relationships revealed what Hamlet did not have. Laura Perrotta’s Gertrude had a strange coldness that was hard to decipher. During the Mousetrap, she might have been flustered or bored. When she walked away from Claudius following Ophelia’s mad scene, she might have been angry, resistant, or exhausted. The production offered no hints at an Oedipal relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude. In the closet scene, Hamlet was momentarily violent, shoving her on the ground and pulling her hair, but then he hugged her desperately on his knees while she stood with his head pressed against her stomach. They held hands and rested their heads together. This alternating violence and sweetness is an apt example of their troubled relationship. The production also distanced its Ghost from Hamlet by making the Ghost (Lynn Robert Berg) more a supernatural performer than a father figure. His voice was amplified by a microphone, he emphasized the histrionics in his lines (“O Hamlet!” and “O horrible!”), the actor playing him also doubled the Player King, and his entrances were marked by billowing smoke.

The production’s interpersonal drama unfolded on a beautiful set, which was designed by Russell Metheny, advertised as a recreated Globe Theater, and consisted of a large, two-tiered wooden structure. On the first tier sat audience members on rows of benches, and the second featured a walkway for actors. This set created a fairly intimate space, although the actors oddly never played to the audience on stage. The lighting, designed by Rick Martin, came from two massive wooden chandeliers fitted with flickering electric candles that rose and descended from ceiling to floor to create a variety of effects. The audience reacted positively to both versions of the production. They clamored to sit on stage during a Sunday matinee when the original ticket-holders were late to arrive, and they gave each Hamlet a standing ovation.

Although local reviewers also responded positively and noted that women have been long playing the play’s title role, some were troubled by a female actor using male pronouns. Yet I was most intrigued by the production’s insistence on misogyny. Its female-acted Hamlet could have exposed the irony of his lines about women’s flaws or his own fears of effeminacy, but he did not. Instead, both Hamlet actors emphasized misogynist lines in his soliloquies, such as “frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2.146).

Two silent moments best exemplify the production’s central message. First, in a brief scene added between Ophelia’s madness and the announcement of her death, Ophelia stumbled across the stage as if drunk, holding a dagger, and Gertrude stood upstage with her arm extended as if to help Ophelia. The gesture was too late, too far away to help, and Ophelia turned and kept walking in a disturbed stagger. Second, in the production’s final moments, a female servant (Jodi Dominick) hid behind two thrones upstage while looking in silent horror at the dead bodies scattered before her. Both moments seemed apt representations of women’s place in this world as bystanders unable to intervene and with little control over their lives. And strangely, the double Hamlets put the title character in a similar situation. Because the play’s tragedy unfolded in exactly the same way no matter who took the title role, the production represented Hamlet as a replaceable pawn in a world he did not always understand and could not control.

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Laura Perrotta as Gertrude and Laura Welsh Berg as Hamlet. Photo by Roger Mastroianni. Courtesy of the Great Lakes Theater.

[1] The quote is taken from the company’s mission statement, which appears at http://www.greatlakestheater.org/about/mission.

[2] I quote act, scene, and line numbers from The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed. W. W. Norton, 1997. 1659-1759.

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