Monday, October 22, 2012

The Post-Modern Female Hamlet? She's Coming to Urbana's Station Theatre

The Station Theatre is getting down with their very own version of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, starting November 1 at the renovated railway station on Broadway in Urbana. You can tell from the neon pink poster above this is no ordinary Hamlet. No, that's not Ophelia you see. That's Lindsay Gates Markel, director Mathew Green's choice to play Hamlet in his production (and adaptation) of the play at the Station.

This will certainly not be the first wildly different Shakespeare we've seen around here, not even the first one at the Station. Karma Ibsen's Southern Zombie Midsummer Night's Dream comes to mind. Looking for new angles and risks fits the Station and its in-your-face mentality.

So why did Green choose a female Hamlet? And why is he adapting the text? Here's what Mathew has to say...

Mathew Green
The notion of directing Hamlet first occurred to me about six years ago. I was performing in David Lindsay Abaire’s Rabbit Hole at the Station, and my stage wife and emotional sparring partner was Lindsey Markel. During one of our rehearsals, I found myself thinking that Ms. Markel (now Gates-Markel) would make an excellent Hamlet. I don’t recall what was going on that particular evening that might have triggered such a thought, but as we thundered away at each other every night, playing articulate, deeply wounded people who cannot reconcile their reality with the way life was supposed to turn out, the Hamlet inkling took hold.

Over the next few years, as I acted and directed in various plays at the Station (often with Lindsey), I tweaked the idea. Traditional, or contemporary? Full text, or adaptation? Play Hamlet as a man, or flip the gender entirely?

Gradually, as I worked out the myriad kinks, I began to mention the idea to other actors and directors, and I was gratified to receive an overwhelming amount of interest and support. Even with this boost to my creative ego, however, the notion was still just that: a notion. The Station hadn’t produced a Shakespearean piece in many years, and, since there was no shortage of the Bard’s work being performed in the Champaign-Urbana vicinity, there didn’t seem any great hurry.

Cut to last Spring, when Lindsey and I were once again acting opposite each other, this time in Gina Gionfriddo’s play Becky Shaw. Once again, we were in each other’s faces, night after night, this time playing a very different pair of verbally dexterous but emotionally fractured people. The lingering, pestering thought of attempting Hamlet resurfaced, and finally the timing seemed perfect. The selection committee for the Station’s 41st season would soon begin taking submissions, and it had just been announced that – miracle of miracles! – none of the other local theaters’ seasons would include Shakespeare.

“This is my chance,” I told myself, and so I set to work adapting the most intimidating play in the English language to fit the Station Theatre’s space and my own personal storytelling style. I had guidelines for myself to which I adhered strictly: First, I would respect the language and neither paraphrase nor modernize the playwright’s words. Second, I would make judicious cuts to the script in order to bring the running-time down to a coherent but brisk length. And third, I would make this play accessible to young audiences while presenting a Hamlet that would be acceptable to lovers of traditional Shakespeare.

I have always enjoyed the juxtaposition of Shakespearean text in modern (or unusual) settings; this always speaks to me and reinforces the idea that Shakespeare’s work is timeless and universal. Love is love, after all, greed is greed, revenge is revenge. Plus, it seems to me that placing the action of the play in a contemporary timeframe, if done well, is itself a step toward accessibility. And so, my Prince Hamlet exists in a time that is very much like our own, a time in which to be young and royal is to be a celebrity of sorts, and in which tragedies and indiscretions have a way of becoming public fodder. (Prince Harry in Vegas, anyone?)

The types of characters on display in Hamlet are so recognizable in our culture: the power-monger, the lovestruck waif, the hangers-on, and especially the privileged, brooding dilettante. How many television shows currently focus on indecisive, capricious, sulky brats who seldom want for anything but attention? And these shows label themselves as “reality.”

The question that must be answered, it seems, is that of Hamlet’s gender, given that the actor portraying the doomed prince is demonstrably, compellingly female. For me, the central issue of the play is that of a son’s duty to his father. By extension, the problem of being a son is being a man. Hamlet’s indecisiveness and inability to act have always thrown his masculinity into question, and I think that’s why so many women – throughout the history of the stage – have portrayed Hamlet. I honestly can’t say whether my decision to cast Lindsey influenced the direction I went with my interpretation of Hamlet, or whether the direction I wanted to take Hamlet instantly reinforced my selection of Lindsey. Regardless, I have the Hamlet I always envisioned – fiercely intelligent, emotionally complex, with just the right amount of Kanye West. We don’t hide the fact that Lindsey is a woman, but we don’t change the fact that Hamlet is meant to be a man. I can understand where audiences might need a second to wrap their heads around that, but I don’t imagine they’ll need much convincing once the play begins.

As for the rest of my cast, all I can say is that I have assembled such a powerful ensemble. From my Claudius and Gertrude (Lincoln Machula and Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson) to my Polonius (David Barkley) to my Laertes and Ophelia (Aaron Clark and Katie Baldwin) and beyond, I have put together a cast with one important concept in mind: Nearly any of these characters could easily be the subject of his or her own play. Therefore, the actors playing the characters have to be, in a way, the main characters of their own stories. Everyone has to be a lead.

Directing a play with this kind of reputation and scope is daunting, and I have been blessed with great collaborators in my cast. Our Hamlet is a lean, muscular sort of play with tremendous emotional stakes, thrilling language, and the kind of creative flourishes and raw nerve for which the Station is well known. As I write this, we are close to opening the show and giving an audience the opportunity to see how the pieces of this strange puzzle fit together.

a play by William Shakespeare
directed and somewhat adapted by Mathew Green
Nov 1-4, 7-11, 14-17 at 8pm
$10 on Wed, Thurs, and Sun
$15 on Fri and Sat

SPECIAL OFFER – On Wednesday, October 31 (final dress rehearsal) and Friday, November 2, high school students get in FREE. On ANY OTHER NIGHT, for the entire run of the show, high school students get in for just $5!!

Thanks, Mathew. Definitely intriguing. I'm not a Hamlet purist by any means, but still... I may have to see this one to figure out if it works for me. Not sure I like the idea of indecisiveness and inability to act making Hamlet seem more feminine, but maybe Mathew can tell us more about that and clear up the misconception.

So there you have his concept of Hamlet. Are you convinced? Will you head over to the Station to check it out?


  1. Thanks for giving me a chance to clear up that "masculinity" comment, Julie. I didn't mean to imply that I think indecisiveness is a feminine characteristic. I would hope that my last several directorial efforts would speak for the fact that I value strong women and like to put them at the center of my productions. What I meant to say was that that viewpoint about masculinity has, as a theory, prompted past directors to cast women in the role. I don't happen to agree with that view, as it smacks of sexism. My reason for casting Lindsey has everything to do with her talent and her intelligence, and her interpretation of Hamlet shows both.

  2. Thanks, Mathew. I knew you could clear it up!