Hamlet is a lesbian in unique take at the BCA.
The Psych Drama Company’s inaugural production of Hamlet at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) is an ambitious undertaking for Wendy Lippe. Lippe is a clinical psychologist and a triple threat in this show -- she is the company’s founder, the director, and the star.
Bending Hamlet’s gender, and moving the setting up through the centuries and into modern times, creates a unique set of circumstances for Hamlet’s players. Hamlet’s status as a prince, or princess, becomes more symbolic than literal, which allows for Shakespeare’s great drama to hinge on interpersonal issues germane to any family, rather than the story of the crown. Zooming in on the strained relationships between Hamlet’s troubled personalities has been a way of filtering the classical show through the Psych Drama Company’s specific lens.
"What if you had a theater company that was able to increase psychological-mindedness in the general public?" Lippe said of the company’s founding. "I just started thinking...what if this was not just interesting to mental health professionals, but if we were able to reach people, especially young people, through passion...and get these [Shakespearean] dramas to transcend time?"
This gave rise to certain goals that Lippe set out for the production, one of the major ones being to explore the role Hamlet’s gender plays in the character’s psyche. While derogatory comments about womankind from a male Hamlet carry one connotation, self-deprecating remarks convey something different entirely.
"When [Hamlet] looks around her, she has female role models that...confuse her identity," she said. "On the one hand her mother...is this promiscuous sexual being, and her girlfriend is a liar. And it forces her to look in the mirror and ask, ’Are we [women] all like this?’"
"How I’m portraying Hamlet is really about...how she struggles to deal with her sexuality," Lippe said. "And as a director, I want to explore the generational differences in acceptance."
Besides leading to the pivotal romantic relationship being a lesbian one, the added ingredient of Hamlet’s femininity has led to love triangles Shakespeare and his traditionalist fans might never have dreamed up. Claudius -- the villainous stepfather figure -- and Horatio -- the male best friend -- have a completely different impact on Hamlet as a character when she is presented as a woman. The play also takes advantage of its modern day setting by presenting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- disingenuous friends to Hamlet and spies to the king -- as a gay couple.
Yet something in Lippe’s performance still registers incontrovertibly male. On her third go as a female Hamlet in this production, the emphasis on masculine cadence and body language may be a conscious choice on the part of Lippe as a performer and director, or simply a testament to Shakespeare’s narrative prowess in writing Hamlet as a male figure. Although dressed in effeminate clothing (Hamlet’s madness, in this case, is conveyed mostly by her promiscuity), there is a hardness in Lippe’s demeanor and a deep tambour in her voice that contradicts one’s preconceived notions of what watching Princess Hamlet might be like. The question, then, is not how being "female" changes Hamlet, but rather what the notion of being female actually means, and the possible reasons for rejecting it.
The production handles some moments that could be otherwise lost on a modern audience quite beautifully. Ophelia’s famous scene of raving lunacy, brought to life by actress Lianne O’Shea, is captivating, disturbing and quite sad. Meanwhile, the infamous "To be, or not to be..." monologue can be read as a commentary on self esteem and perception, as Lippe utilizes the production’s mirrored backdrop provocatively in her delivery. The production’s original underscoring by local punk/pop band Varsity Drag brings a delicious dynamic of suspense with a modern flair.
Yet some tweaks may jeopardize the audience’s ability to understand and relate to the torrid psychological tension in Hamlet. The use of technology to represent Hamlet’s father’s ghost feels contrived, and the finale chosen to substitute the originally scripted high-octane sword fight is a bit underwhelming. The production’s added sexual violence, far beyond what is implied by the script, is disturbing but perhaps not enlightening. With nearly three hours of material to get through in a confined, intimate space, the Psych Drama Company succeeds in offering a never-before-seen take on Hamlet. In a production that is as varied and multifaceted as this, it is perhaps inevitable that not every choice will serve the play’s message, and the intent behind some moments is unclear.
But, to shed some light on the intertwining motives of the production’s characters, a talkback led by a different mental health professional follows the production each night. Each talkback highlights a different thematic aspect of the play’s psychological overtones, from "Oedipal Dynamics and Sexual Politics" to "Crime, Insanity and the Forensic Challenge."
"I think especially today, with social media...we need more time for reflection," Lippe said. "Theater and psychology have parallels...both make discoveries teach us about ourselves and the world around us."
Hamlet will run at the BCA Plaza Black Box theater will run through Saturday, Dec. 17. For showtimes and ticket sales, please visit http://bit.ly/s1LzNA or call (617) 933-8600.