“a double varnish”: or, the Tragedians of Oz

We’ll put on those shall praise your excellence
And set a double varnish on the fame
The Frenchman gave you; bring you in fine together
And wager on your heads. He, being remiss,
Most generous, and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils; so that with ease,
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated, and, in a pass of practice,
Requite him for your father.
— Hamlet, Claudio, IV.vii

A little more than a week ago, I was in Kansas City grading AP Literature and Language exams. This was not my first time at the Great Grade-a-Thon, but it was my first time in Missouri’s largest city. On the penultimate night, I treated myself to the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival‘s Hamlet premiere, which was celebrating both its 25th anniversary in Southmoreland Park and the naming of the street alongside the outdoor venue (modeled after New York’s Central Park festival) after its founder and chairman, Marilyn Strauss. It was a special evening added to the premiere, renaming, and that the show was fronted by television actor Nathan Darrow, most recently of House of Cards and Preacher. While the sloping hill was free to the public, I sprung for the $25 reserved plastic seats since I didn’t have my usual kit of blanket, cooler, and camping chair we keep handy for park Shakespeares. It was a beautiful evening flush with fireflies and a crowd of more than two hundred, by my quick headcount. The business district and conference hotels downtown had been, well, a ghost town for lack of a better word, so it was nice to see that there were in fact people living in the land of the Royals. I’d also had enough distance from the last Hamlet I’d seen—I often feel over-saturated by the Danish play—that I was in the right frame of mind and open, whether it be hawks or handsaws.

What I got was a production gilded o’re with far too much stuff that did not meaningfully seem to contribute to what seemed to be the argument of the production: What if Hamlet is to blame?

The entirely built Elsinore, replete with discovery space, two double-breasted entrances, two french door entrances, and a working balcony with french doors. Featured in front is a statue of King Hamlet which never reappears after Act 1.

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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.