Country Matters: Spoony Bard Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

The name of the new theatre company working on campus, Spoony Bard Shakespeare, references the video game Final Fantasy in which the Engrish insult is understood as loosely akin to “you bastard!” The geek culture meme to which the name alludes accurately represents the aesthetic of their Hamlet: a dark Mulan-ification of the Danish prince that tonally smacks of something like the ABC television series, Once Upon A Time. Through provocative costuming, soundtrack, and cross-dressing choices (including tags from Mulan, The Little Mermaid, the Harry Potter series, and Beauty and the Beast), Spoony Bard manipulates our familiarity with Hamlet to spotlight the rankness of transprejudice.

Caution: possible spoilers ahead.

It is not enough to say that Hamlet is played by a woman, Megan Scharlau, in this production. So are Rosencrantz (Hannah Kline), Guildenstern (Kara Lane), Fortinbras (Mylene Haus), and Horatio (one of Celia Mueller’s most understated and arguably best performances yet). Within the fiction of the play Hamlet is and isn’t a woman. It is unclear if a female Hamlet has been cross-dressing as male for her entire life in order to fulfill the requirements of an heir to the throne, or is a transgendered character that everyone seems to accept as female except for Polonius (rather perfectly cast with Tom Fornander), Ophelia (Sara Nie), and Laertes (Clayton Gentilcore). In this case, not only is the love between Ophelia and Hamlet taboo to her father for reasons of sexual orientation rather than class, but it seems too the Ophelia acquiesced to Hamlet’s courtship only when she was out of women’s weeds. Having realized she had fallen for a woman, this seems to motivate Ophelia into returning Hamlet’s letters and snitching. When Hamlet then asks Ophelia why she would be “a breeder of men,” that question rings entirely differently and I might say more meaningfully. Likewise, when Ophelia cries out to Hamlet “heavenly powers restore him,” she is literally asking Hamlet to be biologically transformed somehow or even back again. Even the well-worn joke, “did you think I meant country matters?” (with the play on “cunt”) rings quite differently as an embarrassing spotlighting of Ophelia’s possible bisexuality in front of the whole court—a kind of cruel outing on Hamlet’s part.

Suggesting the transprejudice also is the fact that nearly everyone in the play refers to Hamlet as “she” except for Polonius and his family. Polonius even corrects Gertrude (Delilah Hansen)—a kind of washed-up Snow White (who struggles to activate her chest resonator)—on the pronoun usage. In this regard, the death of Polonius from behind the arras is additionally satisfying, suggesting the rat, the source of bigotry, has received his comeuppance in a way that a pretentious father and sycophant never seems to fully deserve in traditional stagings of the play. Additionally, Horatio seems to serve as a more ideal romantic partner for Hamlet than the Ren faire princess Ophelia; it is suggested obliquely throughout and then made clear in the last moments of the play. In my notes as I was waiting for Tuesday evening’s dress rehearsal to begin, I asked myself whether this was going to be a ghost story, revenge tragedy, or tale of love gone awry, the usual suspects for Hamlet. That this play was so capable of encoding sexual prejudices and homophobia was a pleasant surprise that upturned my horizon of expectations. I started listening not for my favorite lines, but for moments made new under the pressure of these identity politics.

In this regard, what become most rewarding are the later soliloquies and the confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia. You don’t realize how often Hamlet contemplates “man” and ideal masculinities until you hear a woman saying those lines. A believable aping of acceptable masculine norms seems frustratingly out of reach for Hamlet. The act two speech, “what a work is man,” brings this particular point home and cultivates a powerful sense of empathy for all of this identities we wish we could perform but can’t seem to. The giggle that follows Hamlet’s line “man delights not me” has material weight behind it rather than just philosophy: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern giggle because Hamlet is stating the obvious, and everyone knows s/he is into girls. The recurring self-condemnations of “coward” (not as brave as a boy) and having to “like a whore, unpack my heart with words” ring differently as gendered prejudices and expectations. The need to perform a man correctly for her country and for her beloved seems an impossible task. And in that strife, the task of killing Claudius (Kevin Gomez) gets a bit lost in the motivations. The directors seems to have sensed this, and so usefully problematized Claudius’s character who here seems to care meaningfully about both Hamlet and Gertrude. When he requests Hamlet not go back to Wittenberg due to her “unmanly grief,” this comes off as compellingly protective rather than cruel.

When I read the description of the production, I was imagining something more cos-play, something more ornamental in its interpretation. I do not make much of the Disney costumes and production elements here I think because in part they were so evenly incorporated into the world of this Hamlet. (That anti-transgender legislation has spread rapidly across the country in recent months no doubt has colored my reading of this production.) Denmark doesn’t have a particular cultural resonance for American audiences, so the fairyland world of tales gave it a different, symbolic richness stressing ideas over realism. I am a sucker for a play that knows it is a play, that knows that the goal is not to recreate the fallen world we already live in, but to build one in which we can meditate on a particular idea, problem or question for a time. It is a Hamlet for the current moment, and an truly excellent way to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary this weekend.

  • Spoony Bard Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet plays at the Channing-Murray Foundation Friday, April 22 at 7:00PM, and Saturday, April 23, at 2:00PM and 7:00PM.
    • Note: I love this performance space. With only two stage entranceways and no discovery space, it recreates Tudor elite family halls that was the normal playing space for early modern troupes long before they settled in London playhouses. The recessed tabernacle space and bannister make for a natural tiring house, again imitating the spaces for which these plays were initially designed.
  • Tickets are $5 for students and $8 for non-student adults; check out the Facebook event to RSVP and to get more information.
  • Interested in more She-Hamlets? The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is also doing a Hamlet this summer with a female lead. Click here for more information.

WYW’s “Othello”: A Rainbow Connection

“…in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, every thing,
To fall in love with what she fear’d to look on!
It is a judgment maim’d and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practises of cunning hell,
Why this should be.”
— Brabantio I.iii

Iago is the villain in Shakespeare’s works that most gets under my skin. The only thing that is clear about him is that he does “so hate the Moor.” He gives us upwards of four possible motives for infecting his general with jealousy—that he had been passed over for promotion, that she may have slept with his wife, anxiety about miscegenation, and that she is in general a poor leader—that it is unclear if any of these are at the core of his ire. He offers then a good definition of evil: that for which no motive for hate can be found, a hate that operates without perceived cause. Making the Moor a lesbian woman in the play, as the What You Will Shakespeare Company did this weekend, anchors Iago’s hate even if he cannot articulate it to us: that a Black female is above his station threatens both his military and sexual identities.

This casting choice, aside from anchoring Othello in a cultural moment, makes a number of other aspects about this play ring differently as well. Consider also that Desdemona’s (Megan Scharlau) father, Brabantio (Samantha Fuchs), and the Duke (Madeline Whitesell) are also coded female. The accusations of “witchcraft” that the Moor is accused sits very differently in the play, more overtly associated with medieval female mysticism like that of King Edward II’s wife than the photo-Orientalism of the Ottoman Turks. The play’s emphasis on what is “natural” gets more directly linked with religion rather than race in light of the Supreme Court ruling Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right. In the wake of the SCOTUS rulings hotly behind the racially-motivated shooting in Charleston, the line “if she be blessed, she would never have loved the Moor” clanged in my ear. Never have loved the Moor because she was black? Because she was a woman? Both are viable answers to what it means to not be blessed in the eyes of God, putting these two major recent events in conversation with one another in a way that the media has yet to do.

Othello (Laura Robertson) and Desdemona (Megan Scharlau).

Beyond the surface casting choices, I found this production to be one of the most balanced in terms of actorly skill and attention to text of WYW’s spring season. Iago (Luis Alcantara) came out at the top of his pith, and I was concerned he would have nowhere else to go emotionally. In fact, he grew on me, moving from a guns-blazing stir-the-pot fellow to a considered sociopath by developing an unsettling and pointed quietness by the end of the production. He never lost his like of pointing and directing in his gestures, signaling the militarism and hierarchization that importantly frames the action of the play. His foil, Cassio (Orion Lovell), the overt and conscientious playboy to all women regardless of their orientation, could easily be confused as an inconsiderate lush. I think this production nails his characterization: in a world in which we are taught to be suspect first, as audiences we quickly misdiagnose Cassio’s virtues of sincerity and earnestness as symptoms of a larger, unscrupulous agenda. Lovell’s ability to give Cassio both charm and utter, world-altering dismay to first his removal from command and then to Iago’s attack on him (not to mention the spiking of his drink) by play’s end gives us some ease that Cassio is the one left to rule in Cyprus.

There were a number of other small and smart moments in the production that suggest a careful and detail-oriented approach by co-directors Jaclyn Marta and Matthew James Marquez:

  • Memory: The troupe is beginning to play with the space of the University Place Christian Church more overtly, such as in their recent Macbeth. Here they did a tight theatre-in-the-round set-up that afforded experimentation with their increasingly sophisticated lighting options. Both the courtship scene as described by Othello (Laura Robertson) and Cassio’s temptation of Desdemona as described by Iago are bathed in a blue light to signal the extent of what is being imagined inside Othello’s head. It is a powerful device to lend the character greater interiority that is still informed by the text.
  • Militarism: While watching I was looking for more overt signals to the military context of the play. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized the degree to which gesture was freighting the influence of militarism on the individual characters. Perhaps one of my favorite moments was the interpretation of the lover’s quarrel over Cassio in III.iii: distracted by the business of running a war campaign through her cellphone, Othello is pestered by Desdemona to hear out Cassio. Rather than sycophancy, Robertson found space to use the responses to Desdemona’s admittedly inappropriate influences over military structure as sarcasm. Eye-rolling, frustration, and mock-force play up the irony of “I will deny thee nothing” and “I am obedient,” economically giving us a realistic moment of spousal friction necessary to make these characters human, make us side with and root for them, before they begin to undo one another. It is an important playful set-up to the extent of Othello’s strength when the mock-force becomes real force, full face slaps, and aggressive shoving about when Othello first confronts Desdemona about infidelity in IV.i: “I would make her turn: / Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on, / And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep; / And she’s obedient, as you say, obedient, / Very obedient.” It is a creative approach to these imbedded stage directions to physically turn Desdemona, alongside the echoes of earlier “obedience,” that lends their relationship and the play coherence.
  • Willows: Desdemona’s willow song is a signal moment in this play, not unlike the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or the madness scene in Macbeth. Played as if in shock or lost in memory, the song can easily evacuate the tenuous agency that Desdemona has developed in the course of the play. Without that agency, Othello is made simply a brute killing an unknowing innocent and these characters lose the complex richness that made them relatable in the first place. Scharlau gives us a doe-eyed Desdemona for most of the production: aware, playful, but smacking of nothing serious. Here she creates a very calm moment with a thoughtful interpretation of the willow song, sung confidently and only occasionally incorporating a minor key without exoticizing Barbary’s song too much. Suffering from allergies, it was calm and lovely enough that I found myself working hard to keep from sniffling and disturbing the moment. Her abrupt turn in the song to say “what’s that‽” made the whole audience gasp and several of us jump up in our seats. I had never envisioned this moment in this way, but we were in fact taken in by a North African song and story, entranced as Desdemona must have first been by Othello, and perhaps experiencing what entrances them about one another.

Often you don’t necessarily get as thoughtful a production when the exigency, the timeliness of its subject matter, is so immediate. The context for me as I meditate this morning is the recent SCOTUS ruling and Charleston. That we need to talk about racialized privilege and the policing of bodies in this country has never been more present and more difficult, and yet again Shakespeare gave me a way to link these together and space to meditate on those links. If we can make any claims to how theatre is political, it is in the way it gives us imaginative room to contemplate frictions in our realities. In skimming through the program, I was struck that not only were the actors playing Desdemona and Cassio in a relationship, but that the actors playing Iago and Othello are getting married in a month’s time. No doubt the struggles they have and will face as an interracial couple may’ve informed their performances (speaking of motive), but certainly it brings home again that these dramas have direct bearings on our reality. I can say that I needed this play, in this way, right now. As a summer production the audience was scanter than it might have been; I hope the What You Will Shakespeare Company considers re-mounting it for the fall, as I think others need this play, in this way, too.