Princess Hamlet

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Bernard K. Addison (Claudius), Kate Eastwood Norris (Hamlet), and Carol Halstead (Gertrude). Photo by Jana Marcus

By Philip Pearce

AT A TIME when we have a female candidate for president, I guess it’s not too surprising that Shakespeare Santa Cruz is offering us a female Hamlet.

Not that dynamic blonde Kate Eastwood Norris is the first actress to undertake the role. Sarah Bernhardt, Judith Anderson and Frances de la Tour at one or more points in their respective careers climbed into doublet and hose and acted the Danish prince. But at Santa Cruz she’s a princess, which may not be a first but was a first for me.

And there are a bustling lady courtier named Polonius and a pair of Wittenberg ‘coeds’ called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just to add to the mixture.

Director Paul Mullins uses an adroitly cut text that omits Voltemand and Fortinbras and all that diplomatic maneuvering with Norway. And he gives the performance a brisk, cinematic pace that makes the story line and plot points engagingly clear, but sometimes at the cost of ideas and full character development. Still, you can’t have everything, and where this version works, it works quite well.

That tends to happen most in sequences of movement and physical action, like the noisy arrival of the players (they clatter and chatter their way in along the aisles of the new DeLaveaga Park amphitheater) or in Hamlet’s closing duel with Laertes. Norris is delightful in her “Speak the speech” advice to Larry Paulson’s orotund Player King, which she delivers with both levity and charm that avoids any touch of social condescension. And she and Cody Nickell as an intense Laertes handle their closing sword-work with an athleticism that is swift and convincing.

Norris is anything but a melancholy Dane. She gets Hamlet’s blithe wit and edgy sarcasm just right. What is sometimes lost in the hurried pace of this production is Hamlet’s reflective awareness of spending more than four acts as a dull and muddy-mettled rascal who can’t manage to kill his Uncle Claudius. Norris’ reading of the well-worn “To be or not to be” soliloquy, which is all questions and possibilities and second guesses, emerges as a series of perky but unconvincing assertions. By contrast, in Hamlet‘s high energy “peasant slave” reaction to the Player King’s Hecuba speech, she’s wonderful.

The complexity of some of Shakespeare’s supporting characters also gets blurred in all the rush. Interesting idea for Bernard K Addison to double in the roles of Claudius and the ghost of his murdered brother. B Modern’s costume design underscores the contrast young Hamlet makes (“Hyperion to a satyr”) between a late-lamented father who’s not only good but good looking and an uncle who‘s not just wicked but looks it. In Santa Cruz, King Hamlet’s ghost appears, not in the usual misty armor and helmet, but in a radiant, all-white outfit that knocks your eye out. This ghost is stunningly regal. His howls from the great beyond aren’t self-pity; they’re howls of animal rage. By contrast, Claudius struts around in an adequate but boring blue uniform and spends the play rather drearily orating his lines. This diminishes the scene where, as a kind of preliminary sketch for Macbeth, he tries to kneel and pray but realizes he’s too unrepentantly guilty to do so. It’s the important moment where we should recognize that, wicked as he is, Claudius is an insightful antagonist worthy of the complex Hamlet. As directed and acted in this version, the Ghost is lots more interesting than his murderer who remains just a one-dimensional bad guy waiting to get his comeuppance.

Gertrude the Queen is at best a pretty thankless role. In early scenes Shakespeare presents a sensual woman who is placidly dependent on her new spouse and curiously conventional in a doting relationship with her son. In the second act at Santa Cruz, Carol Halstead rises effectively enough to the pyrotechnics of the closet scene where young Hamlet disobeys the ghost and confronts her mother with some ugly home truths about an incestuous second marriage. But by the time Gertrude moves on to the later scene where she reports the death of Ophelia, we’ve had such an avalanche of hurried second act catastrophes that her stunningly poetic description of the event isn’t much more than a hurriedly checked off plot-point.

The production’s gender bending adds interesting new implications, some of which work better than others.

I liked Patty Gallagher’s busy-body Polonius. The role can be and has been embarrassingly hammed, but Gallagher is just tiresome enough to justify the Princess’ jibes and contempt while still making it believable that Claudius and Gertrude would retain this lady as a valued political adviser.

Making the affair between Hamlet and Ophelia a lesbian one suggests some interesting new character elements but things move along too swiftly for them to be fully developed. As written, part of the opposition Ophelia’s family have to her relationship with Hamlet springs from the fear of an unwanted pregnancy from a social superior, a possibility this production understandably edits out.  But the well-known “Get thee to a nunnery!” scene, played with spirit and feeling by Norris’ Hamlet and Mia Ellis’ Ophelia, loses a lot of its cutting edge in a same-sex context. If the Princess really wants her abandoned lover to eschew future sexual attachments, a nunnery would seem like a riskily all-female environment in which to make that happen.

The final moments of the play, with Horatio embracing and eulogizing the dead Hamlet seem to open up a surprisingly interesting new idea. Powerfully acted by Artistic Director Mike Ryan, not as the usual amiable bookish wimp but a strong man who knows his own mind and heart, Horatio ends his tribute to Hamlet with an extended kiss. Does this suggest that, once Ophelia was out of the picture, Horatio had harbored a hope of becoming the loving consort of a newly crowned Queen of Denmark?

Wow!

Sometimes too quick for full effect but never slow or boring, Hamlet continues in repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream through August 28.