Dallas — A waggish academic tells his drama students that Hamlet should be played by a woman for many reasons, as he rattles off names like Sarah Bernhardt and Judith Anderson in evidence. Further, he asks, “Who else talks forever when nobody listens?”
Women Playing Hamlet, William Missouri Downs’ 2015 comedy, directed by Chad Cline for Pegasus Theatre, has fun with method drama coaches, academic angles on the Bard, and how female actresses can wrestle their way into traditional male roles through crazy-serious commitment and pushing really, really, hard.
Newly arrived in New York City from Minnesota, Jessica (a deliberately hyper-earnest Lauren Ashley Hearn) has been cast as Hamlet, but is dumbstruck by the challenge. “To be or not be…” she ponders, seeking the noblest recourse and chewing Nicorette gum to stop smoking. As the main narrator and guide to the trials and titillations of making it in theater, Hearn alternately implores the audience to laugh at her insider knock-knock jokes or to feel her pain when she is humiliated by the star himself for texting in the middle of Patrick Stuart’s I, Claudius. Her teenage cousin made her do it!
Some 20 roles, male and female, are played by four other actresses, reversing the gender track from Shakespeare’s day when men played Cleopatra, Juliet and Lady Macbeth in tight bodices. Gelacio Eric Gibson’s simple, telling costume changes cue us into the character shifts quickly, as Jessica navigates the perils of bringing her role to the stage.
Leslie Patrick is the svelte diva drama coach Jessica hires to prepare her for her role, instantly scorning her pupil’s research sources. “Wikipedia is not allowed at Yale.” Donning specs and a tweed jacket Patrick becomes an amusing New Age drama prof drawling on about the feminine aspects of Hamlet, and Shakespeare as a mass murderer—a scene requiring Power Point, a tool, he says, “Shakespeare would have used if he had it.” Not all the lines land on their comic feet in this show.
Madeline Morris is pop-rock funny as Jessica’s dimwit cousin and a celebrated soap opera actress.
Merri Brewer delivers her eccentric characters with energy and wit. Her Midwest accent is perfect as Jessica’s Minnesota mom, and she gets big laughs as the shrink who tells uptight Jessica that she’s a victim of “either demonic possession or constipation.” Brewers’ goofy British scholar declares that Hamlet “is Yahweh, Big Bend, Mount Everest,” and is all over hapless Jessica for mentioning “Shakespeare and Neil Simon in the same sentence.”
Octavia Y. Thomas is a hoot as the upbeat and burly barkeep who cheers Jessica up when she goes to get drunk and gives her a kind massage. The bartender is also one of the few characters, from taxi drivers to priests, who does not have an MFA in drama, a running joke in the show that gets a little tired by intermission. Thomas’ gravedigger scene goes on too long, but she gets some laughs with her skull twirling.
Two acts and a 15-minute intermission later, our hard-working heroine has labored long and been analyzed enough, presumably, to handle the role. She’s decided you can’t get Hamlet with just “masculine thinking.” The feminist in her is aroused, as she explains to us that “real life is more compacted than the male version” of most scenarios.
Sometimes that effort is funny, and sometimes it gets a bit pedantic, as when Jessica starts listing numbers of female and male roles in Shakespeare and then questioning the “fairness” of it all. Some scenes go on too long, and the knock-knock jokes are barely funny. Whining rarely get laughs; who wants to hear, once more, present and future generations chastised for not reading more Shakespeare?
Still, all these actresses certainly have the commitment and energy required by Jessica’s drama coach, and when our girl arrives at her beginning at the play’s end, Hearn delivers Hamlet’s famed soliloquy with a special you-go-girl confidence and inner smile. No question—we smile, too.