To do or not to do, that is the question. In Women Playing Hamlet, now onstage at the Ojai Art Center Theater, an actress gets the chance of a lifetime, but she’s unprepared for the challenges that come with tackling the melancholy Dane. It isn’t just her acting chops she questions or Hamlet’s inherent personality quirks, but her own sense of self.
In this comedy by William Missouri Downs, the Minnesota-born Jessica, played with great pluck by Cecily Hendricks, is cast to play Hamlet on the New York stage. It’s her chance to follow in the giant footsteps of legendary actresses like Sarah Bernhardt and Dame Judith Anderson, but Jessica finds herself stuck in place. She’s paralyzed by self-doubt, questions and fear. Kind of like Hamlet, who ruminates about everything. And we do mean everything. Similarities aside, can Jessica find it within herself to embody one of the greatest roles in the English language? Who is Hamlet? Does Jessica have what it takes to be him? Should a woman play Hamlet in the first place? Why are there so many lines?
Thumbing his nose at the Shakespearean tradition of men playing every role — male and female — Missouri Downs makes the entire cast of Women Playing Hamlet female. He hasn’t done it for novelty’s sake. As production director Larry Swerdlove writes in the program notes: “Since Hamlet is a revenge play, maybe there’s some poetic justice in a woman playing the part.” Swerdlove adds, “[Women Playing Hamlet] is a comedy that explores the issue of gender in a serious way.” Making it an all-female cast breaks the play wide open, where questions of gender, revenge, identity, the nature of theater itself, not to mention the relevance of an MFA, spill out in a way that wouldn’t be possible if it were a male or mixed cast.
Jessica begins her quest for answers and chutzpah by hiring Gwen, an outspoken acting coach, played with a revelatory mix of authority, melancholy and tenderness by Tracey Williams Sutton. Jessica pays extra to hear the truth, and it’s not always pretty. Jessica also encounters a slew of other characters, male and female, played by the enormously engaging Peggy Steketee, Shelby Sandefur, Angela DeCicco and Sindy McKay. Highlights include Steketee’s bartender; Sandefur’s cell phone-wielding teenager; DeCicco’s “enthusiastic” Shakespeare scholar and McKay’s wisecracking gravedigger. Tracey Sutton is wonderful as the ghost of Sandra Bernhardt. She is also highly skilled as the production’s costumer.
The energy and chemistry of the entire cast is something to savor, not just because they are destroying 500 years of dusty, worn-out convention, but because they’re really sharp and funny. They move breezily across the simple yet brilliantly appointed set by Steve Pronovost. They fill, figuratively, the stage lit by Jerry Montanez who creates every effect — from the bright lights of Starbucks to the ghostly hue of Hamlet’s castle. The actresses wield with aplomb both highball glass and Hamlet handbag, shovel and festooned skull, thanks to the infinitely creative prop mistress Christina Colombo.
Most of all, what this excellent cast and crew manage to do is bring to life a play that is completely relevant, not just to women but to everyone. “To thine own self be true,” Polonius says in Hamlet. Turns out it’s not that easy to do. Does Hamlet accomplish it? Maybe, but with dire consequences. Not to give anything away, but Jessica fares much better. And that might be the best revenge of all.
Women Playing Hamlet through April 16 at Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery Ave., Ojai. For more information call 640-8797 or visit www.OjaiACT.org.