Jordan Aikin and Alyssa Rae Hendricks in Women Playing Hamlet. Photo: Little Colonel
Women Playing Hamlet
By William Missouri Downs
Directed by Martha Frazier
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
In an early scene, a pompous academic declares that it is entirely natural for a woman to play Hamlet because the character is thoroughly unmanly, and that the Danish Prince’s indecisiveness is a weakness typical of women. While I have no doubt such sexism in regards to gender-blind casting is not hard to come by, the perspective is staged as unquestionably antiquated. Women have been playing Hamlet for generations. They also now play Lear. Times have changed.
Still, when Jessica Bissett (Jordan Aiken) is cast in the role for a New York City production, it remains intimidating enough to trigger an existential crisis. She enlists the aid of an acting coach (Alyssa Hendricks) and an analyst (Carol Williams) and faces the temptation of an offer to return to The Young and the Restless, playing the twin sister of her previous role.
A rich assortment of other characters enter and exit, and all are played by women, regardless of the gender, the playwright reinforcing the viability of a good Hamlet not requiring a masculine identity.
There is also a good deal of comic mirroring of the plot and characters in Hamlet. Jessica has also lost her father, her mother once confessed that she was in love with Jessica’s uncle, two characters arrive late in the action named Rosy and Gilda, and there is a Ghost and a Gravedigger.
The script liberally breaks the fourth wall and director Martha Frazier includes some startling entrances from behind the audience that seemed to authentically interrupt the performance. In her program biography Frazier expresses gratitude to Little Colonel for allowing her, ”…to direct the weird plays,” and it is certainly encouraging to see the Pewee Valley company embracing the risk, albeit modest, of a postmodern feminist comedy that drops a few profanities while defying the kind of conventions that companies such as this have always embraced.
Jordan Aiken gives an earnest, appealing performance in the lead. Jessica narrates her own story, freely stepping in and out of scenes in a manner that emphasizes the extreme subjectivity of the device. Aiken is adroit in such transitions, and easily connects to the audience so that we never feel tempted to view Jessica as an unreliable narrator.
The pleasures of the ensemble are many, but Joy Maki De Tore’s bold energy and authoritative presence was impressive, and Shannon Watts was equally charming in four roles. In truth, the simple wigs and costumes utilized when the cast played men augmented performances good enough to force repeated reference to the program. Was that really Bekah Abersold playing that Humanities Professor?
The settings were simple, and a good deal was accomplished with well-managed projections, and the repeated raising and lowering of a stationary screen was not unobtrusive but was accomplished at times in conjunction with entrances, so that a character might appear almost as magic.
Women Playing Hamlet is not without depth and literary subtext, but it is mostly about our relationship with Shakespeare; not afraid to satirize the ponderousness with which Americans have historically approached the Bard. Jessica’s anxiety is a common experience for any actor, but the weight of one of the most iconic characters in English-language theatre raises the stakes considerably, and the young woman becomes a reflection of the audience’s own struggle to cope with challenging opportunities.
Featuring Bekah Abersold, Jordan Aiken, Jill Brown, Joy Maki De Tore, Alyssa Hendricks, Jennifer Moore, Shannon Watts, & Carol Wiliams
Women Playing Hamlet
October 1, 2, 7, 8, 9 @ 7:30 pm
October 3, 10 @ 2:00 pm
Little Colonel Playhouse
302 Mt Mercy Drive
Pewee Valley, KY 40056
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.