Flipping the script on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in numerous ways, playwright William Missouri Downs has crafted a comedy in which women get all the stage time.
Women Playing Hamlet is no towering tragedy. Rather, it’s an amusing behind-the-scenes look at an actor’s process, the pretentious characters one can meet in the worlds of theater and academia, and the sometimes-tortuous path that comes with taking a big artistic risk.
New Theatre, which makes its home at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, has just opened its production of Downs’ play as part of a “rolling world premiere.” That’s a National New Play Network program in which several theaters agree to stage the same play in the same season, each getting a piece of the valuable “world premiere” pie, each giving the playwright a chance to see how different directors, actors and companies bring the script to life.
Having already been produced at the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Gamut Theatre Group in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Women Playing Hamlet is getting a playful interpretation by director Ricky J. Martinez and another of New Theatre’s typically diverse casts.
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The engaging Susie Kreitman Taylor plays Jessica, a Minnesota native who has worked hard to shed her regional accent and challenge herself as an actor in New York. She has been cast as the melancholy Dane in Hamlet, becoming another in a long line of actresses — Sarah Bernhardt, Judith Anderson, dozens more — who have taken on one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles.
Jessica, however, finds herself blocked. It doesn’t help that she took her teen niece Emily to see a Broadway Hamlet starring Patrick Stewart as Claudius, and for reasons that seemed perfectly rational at the time, wound up texting Emily after the bored kid retreated to the lobby. That led Stewart to halt the production and demand Jessica cut it out, leaving Jessica with Hamlet-related trauma.
So Jessica hires Gwen (Kitt Marsh), an acting coach who also has a Hamlet under her belt. Condescending and judgmental, Gwen explains that for $50 an hour she’ll boost Jessica’s confidence with unstinting praise, and for $100, she’ll actually coach her and tell the truth. Jess opts for truth, and it isn’t pretty.
Four other actresses play multiple roles, female and male, a turnabout from Shakespeare’s day when men played Ophelia and Gertrude and Lady Macbeth in drag.
Among the performers’ multitasking highlights: Vanessa Elise hilariously plays a daffy British Shakespearean scholar, a butch bartender (one of the few characters who doesn’t have an MFA in acting, one of Downs’ running jokes) and an out-of-it daytime drama star. Melissa Ann Hubicsak is Jessica’s Gertrude-like mother (with a straight-out-of-Minnesota accent, don’t ya know), a humanities professor, a gravedigger and others. Rebecca Jimenez plays Jessica’s conniving niece as well as a shrink Jess sees to try to get insight into Hamlet’s psyche. Francesca N. Toledo is a priest, a younger soap star and Jessica’s understudy, one of a multitude of actors working as a Starbucks barista.
Stephen E. Davis’ set, which looks as though it was crafted from partially disassembled orange crates, works perfectly with the script’s conceit of having the actors describe the play’s multiple settings. Travis Neff’s projections underscore the comedy, and Marcia Kreitman’s costumes work with the actors’ interpretive skills to define character.
Downs’ script has its weak spots, including Jessica’s penchant for tepid “knock-knock” jokes. But it also has theater history and some of the eternal questions about playing Hamlet woven into its fabric, along with funny and sobering truths about the actor’s life. And, thanks to Martinez, Taylor and their creative collaborators, it has a moving final image of a graceful Hamlet, a soliloquy and gently falling snow.
If you go
What: ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ by William Missouri Downs.
Where: New Theatre production at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay.
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, through April 26.
Cost: $26 in advance, $31 at the door ($16 for students under 25).
Information: 786-573-5300 or www.new-theatre.org.