Author: A.H. Goldstein

DAILY CAMERA: Review: ‘Hamlet’ tweaks gender roles, succeeds

Madness knows no boundaries of gender.

(Above: Lenne Klingaman, left, as Hamlet, and Mare Trevathan as Gertrude, pictured in rehearsal, appear in Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s “Hamlet,” which opened on Saturday. Photo by Jennifer Koskinen / Courtesy Colorado Shakespeare Festival)

For that matter, the whole of humanity has an equal claim to swells of jealousy, passion, anger, guile, craftiness and violence. All of these qualities are part of the timeless human experience, and they also happen to be prime drivers behind the downfall of the titular character in William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy “Hamlet.” As the Colorado Shakespeare Festival‘s current production of the piece illustrates, these motivators drive the Bard’s signature drama just as effectively when the lead character is a woman.

For its 60th season, the CSF has taken its programming cues straight from its original 1958 lineup, remounting “Hamlet” along with two other titles from the festival’s premiere summer. Along with this tribute to the festival’s roots, CSF’s creative brass wanted to offer some creative risks for the season, and director Carolyn Howarth leads this year’s most unorthodox take on a Shakespearean warhorse.

In this spin on the tragedy, the doomed Danish protagonist is not a prince, but a princess played by Lenne Klingaman. All of the main points of the plot remain the same in the production, save for some further tweaks to gender roles in the supporting cast — Laertes, the daughter of the councilor Polonius and Hamlet’s eventual foil is also cast as a woman and played by Ava Kostia; Fortinbras, the hot-blooded prince of Norway who is a firsthand witness to the play’s ultimate devastation, here is a princess and played by Elise Collins. These shifts cast a different light on father/daughter relationships in the show.

These tweaks, Howarth explains in the program notes, are part of a push to see Shakespeare’s signature tragedy under a different lens, to find “a new look, a new angle, a new moment of clarity” when it comes to a drama that’s also served as a cornerstone of Western literature and culture. The production seeks to shift long-held preconceptions about these iconic characters and their motivations, even as it works to plumb at the more universal and timeless factors driving the action.

For the most part, the experiment succeeds, thanks in large part to a top-notch ensemble and, more specifically, to the energy and insight of Klingaman, whose take on Hamlet encapsulates madness and heartbreak, obsession and frenzy. Any jarring effects of shifted pronouns and varying gender roles quickly disappear with the pure power and depth of Klingaman’s performance.

The more troublesome spots of this reimagined tragedy arrive in some of the more quotidian elements of the plot, the points of the story where the rubber doesn’t always fully meet the road with the shifted roles. “Hamlet” is an Elizabethan tragedy, and its basic structure includes embedded assumptions and standards from 17th-century England. These reinforcements remain in the CSF production and, with the swapped roles, they make for some moments of deep dissonance.

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