One night I was transfixed by the sight of a woman being nominated for President of the United States, the next I was treated to the sight of a woman playing Hamlet! In Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s skillful production of the epic tragedy, Kate Eastwood Norris soars beyond expectations of the brooding Danish prince and provides us with a smart, physically adroit, and fiendishly funny Hamlet—the Danish princess. With director Paul Mullins’ impeccable staging, the production sets out to infuse energy and nuance into Shakespeare’s epic—and it succeeds.
Opening night’s Hamlet succeeded on so many fronts. Minimalist set design suggested the parapets of Elsinore’s castle, thanks to tall white columns, which by the time-honored miracle of stagecraft (plus our imaginations) gave the acting company exactly what it needed—an arena in which to strut and play, caper and duel, and ultimately perform its magic. The crisp staging used the entire grove. The ghost of Hamlet’s father (Bernard K. Addison) disappears up the side aisles. The castle’s interior and exterior seem to flow easily in and out of the tall columns as characters enter the action and then exit to pursue their intrigues.
The decision to cast women in several key roles often created choice bits of dramatic friction and more than a little delightful mischief. When Guildenstern (Katherine Ko) and Rosencrantz (Mary Cavett) first reunite with their old classmate Hamlet, girlfriendly giddiness breaks out with such brio as to almost mask their darker mission, as Polonius, SCS veteran Patty Gallagher, effortlessly crafts a tour de force of interfering blabbery. Her portrayal embodies a terrific match of comedic skills and deft wordplay, illuminating the silliness of the unfortunate counselor and the scathing send-up Shakespeare intends. The switch in gender complicates (deliciously) the character’s myopia. Another bit of casting savvy has the same actor, Addison (who also plays the clueless Nick Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream) cast as the murdered king and as his murderer, Claudius. The irony of a single player in these fatally entwined roles is both visually and psychologically resonant, as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Carol Halstead) moves expertly from self-delusion to regret. And the entire company—thanks to costumer B. Modern—looks wonderful.
Led with confidence by Larry Paulsen (as both the King of the players, and later as the salty Gravedigger), the small player-within-the-play troupe assumes the stylized, almost dreamlike stances that mesmerized our live audience as much as the onstage audience of Elsinore’s court. Some of the most famous moments in which Shakespeare reveals so much about stagecraft, and the power of our imaginations to conjure genuine emotions from mere words, are packed into this gemlike meta-play.
But now to Hamlet herself. Kate Eastwood Norris, playing the part that many young girls grew up wishing they could play (I know I did), pulled it off with a meteor shower of clarity and style. Here was a Hamlet whose gender—thanks to costume as well as superb technique—slowly transformed throughout the play (much as Orlando’s will in the Fringe Show).
Beginning from the elegant black gown of mourning in which we first meet the grieving Dane, to the “to be or not to be” scene in which she wears a plaid kilt over trousers and boots, to the final sword fight clad completely in men’s attire, Norris convinces us of the character’s own psychological transitioning. Suddenly I was seeing a Hamlet relevant in ways I hadn’t expected. Not that Hamlet is shown as essentially a woman, nor is the director caving to cultural fashion. But here is what Hamlet might mean, might do. Norris’s stylistic hipness, electrifying intelligibility, and command of each word’s power were utterly convincing. The opening night audience seemed to be with her every step of the way. Norris’s Hamlet illuminated the phrases, not only one by one but also as they gathered into cascades of revelation. The layers of laugh-out-loud humor and witty wordplay that tease the central tragedy also showed up. You will be stunned at just how much fun betrayal and revenge can be in the right hands.
Last autumn I was lucky enough to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet on the London stage and, I have to say, Norris’ performance compared handsomely. She did what Shakespeare demands—“amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears.” And in the process, blew me away. I confess I had been initially uneasy about the idea of Hamlet being performed by a women, as a woman. Silly me. I was quickly smitten, and I’ll bet you will be, too. Don’t miss this surprising transformation of a play you thought you knew.
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet by William Shakespeare is at the Audrey Stanley Grove at Delaveaga Park through Aug. 28. santacruzshakespeare.org.