PLAYSHAKESPEARE: CSF’s Female Hamlet Provides Universal Perspective
(Above: Ava Kostia (Laertes) and Lenne Klingaman (Hamlet) duel. Photo by Jennifer Koskinen)
Over the course of its sixty seasons, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (established in 1958) has produced Shakespeare’s most famous play eight times. This averages to a Hamlet per decade spanned except for the 1980s; in 1988, CSF double-dipped to capitalize on the then-popularity of Top Gun star Val Kilmer, who was cast as the eponymous Dane. Unsurprisingly, ticket sales soared and the Festival earned the Denver Drama Critics Circle’s “Best Season For a Company” prize.
This year’s Hamlet, number eight, may give the 1988 production a literal run for its money — as of a few days before opening night, non-balcony tickets in the indoor University Theatre weren’t available until August. That’s what happens when you celebrate your sixtieth year with an actress, Lenne Klingaman playing Hamlet.
As a woman.
While the dramaturg’s program notes elucidate that more than 200 women have taken on the role of Hamlet in the last 300 years (which sounds like a lot until you realize that tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of productions have been performed in that time), it wasn’t until the twentieth century that actresses began to play Hamlet as female. “Many of Hamlet’s qualities would have appeared feminine to an Elizabethan audience, including his penchant for melancholy and weeping and his erratic behavior,” the notes say. Fortunately, Klingaman and director Carolyn Howarth do not fall into that trap; this Hamlet rarely cries, and when she does, most notably in the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy, she seems to berate herself for it. Many a male Hamlet has shed far more angsty tears than this one.
From the start, snow falls on a gray and desolate set with pillar-like trees (or tree-like pillars) and logs that double as tables or chairs or headstones, whichever the scene requires. This is not a castle or wooded glen to be caught alone in. Setting aside the inherent creepiness and the literal and symbolic climate of rottenness and death, the bleak isolation proves Hamlet’s declaration that “Denmark’s a prison” a despairing truth rather than depressive hyperbole.