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.

Tilting at Windmills: Shakespeare Project of Chicago’s “Cardenio”

This past Saturday I hopped an early train to Chicago to catch the 10:00AM performance of Cardenio. The re-envisioning of the Shakespeare-and-Fletcher play, written by Charles Mee and Stephen Greenblatt, was not at all what I had expected. Performed as a staged reading by the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, the production was done in modern dress and modern prose. While I’ve read Fatal ContractThe Second Maiden’s Tragedy, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote—all source material for what was the play that is now, for all intents and purposes, lost—the only relationship they seemed to share with what I saw was the broad plot structure. (The RSC usefully spells out how it came to be lost here.) Two best friends are in love with the same girl. One marries her, but for the wrong reasons. Hijinks caused by meddling parents at the Umbria wedding reception ensue, producing realizations in both men about in whom their true loves lie. Through comedic machinations and deceit, the more suitable couples are correctly aligned.

I don’t mind judicious cutting of Shakespeare to get a play to fit within two hours. I don’t mind collaboratively written plays or plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. (In fact, I think the evidence is much stronger for Fletcher than for Shakespeare in this case.) I don’t mind radical adaptations of Shakespeare to get these plays to say something new. I do mind art that bathes itself in cultural appropriation and white genius as if that is more than enough to merit its existence. And I wanted so much to like Cardenio. (I did like the performances). However, I struggled with the Italian stereotypes—of food, music, accent, sexual promiscuity, and peasant identity—that the plays leans on to do its world-building. Simonetta (Barbara Zahora) and Melchiore (Matt Kahler) are servants who provide all the traditional (and fetishized) food and drink for the feast, are made sex objects of by the New Yorkers, and then put on pedestals for their transformative folk wisdom. Even Shakespeare would have given these “low” characters more comedic work to do than this. While their musical interludes (no doubt carefully curated by John Nygro, George Zamora, and Gary Alexander) were beautiful, they were often placed as a means to soothe the confused modern Americans with the aesthetics of the Old World.

There were particularly strong performances, as I said. Will (Chris Landis), the best man at this wedding, had a wiry, squirrelly disposition that suited an earnest friend who happens to teach high school Latin. (Only when academic write narrative do the characters have jobs like high school Latin teacher here or college English major there, as in Jefferey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.)  It is hard to convey sincerity and the first blushes of realizing you are in love when there is a giant black binder of text between you and your beloved. With a low center of gravity and a straight posture, Landis extended the range of motion of his prompter hand to effectively suggest bodily engagement with his love object, the newly married Camila (Erin Neal). Camila isn’t a character you root for: she’s the kind of woman who wants to unlock something in the man she’s with, and where all relationships are fixer-uppers. Yet, Neal makes Camila sympathetic in giving her a range of emotions that effect the range of feelings she is experiencing in her decision-making process without aiming for extremes. Will and Camila end up in a sticky place: theirs is a love that is predestined, contrived at first sight, or at least biologically pre-determine. It’s a weird, antiquated notion to rehearse considering everything else in the play is brought up to date. Living in a time when Dan Savage’s condemnation of the “myth of The One” has more traction than Romeo & Juliet, I’m not sure why the co-authors decided to cling to this while giving up all the rest.

I guess what made me squirm the most was the meta-theatre for theatre’s sake. It was the same issue I had with the resolution to Kingdom City recently. The inciting incident that causes the lovers’ topsy-turvy is the unexpected arrival of the groom’s parents. With them they bring a lost Shakespeare play as a gift, and want to stage it that evening using all the guests as actors. They all conveniently happened to do theatre as children and in college. All of them. Theatre is the skill they share. Theatre is the reason things get turned upside down. Theatre is the mechanism by which Camila and Will, asked to kiss each other as the leads, realize they are biological preferable over their current partners. Theatre is the mechanism by which all is resolved without turning into a revenge tragedy. For me, at least, the mode can’t be the reason d’être for the art. A play can’t exist solely as a justification for plays to exist. Plays do something meaningful when they are a vessel for something other than art. And particularly because this play relies on marketing itself as a lost play of Shakespeare’s (and then has a lost play of Shakespeare’s put its own action into motion), as a playgoer I felt like I ended up in a sticky place, too, as if I had only attended an event to reinforce the elitism associated with that particular event. I felt dizzy, even, as if I had been tilting at windmills.

  • The Shakespeare Project of Chicago’s production of Cardenio runs 15–19 April 2016 at several Chicagoland venues. Please see their website for details.
  • Note that while admission is free, seating is limited and some venues require pre-registration.
  • The full script is available for free online at the Cardenio Project, here.