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By Beki Pineda

HAMLET. Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Carolyn Howarth. Produced by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (University Theatre, CU campus) through Aug. 13, 2017. Tickets available at 303-492-8008 or https://cupresents.org.

Every year the actor-support organization in Colorado, the Denver Actors Fund, holds a major fundraiser called Miscast. It’s an opportunity for singers and dancers to perform those roles in which they would NEVER be cast because they are the wrong race, size, age or gender. Females get to sing “Agony,” the Prince’s song from INTO THE WOODS, and men can perform “Sisters,” from WHITE CHRISTMAS—the theory being that a little gender-bending is good for the soul.

So that’s just what the Shakes did this summer with its HAMLET—a little gender-bending.  Of course, that makes it the show that everyone wants to see. How does it affect the relationships within the script? Does it make Hamlet and Ophelia a lesbian couple? What about the Gertrude-Hamlet mix of emotions? Can a woman carry the passion of Hamlet to fruition? Well, of course, the answer is a resounding YES. In the viewing, the gender of the characters turns out to be a nonissue.

Hamlet, the daughter, still loves her father and is bound to avenge him. She is still conflicted by her mother’s actions in marrying her husband’s brother barely three months after her husband’s death. She is a strong, outspoken student, a worthy swordswoman, and an intelligent avenger. She has the same torment about stepping over the line into vengeance, and the same anger at the perceived betrayal. And yes, it does become a lesbian love story with Hamlet being at ease with her sexuality and Ophelia slightly abashed. It creates a new set of emotions for Polonius (Ophelia’s father) and Laertes (usually a brother, but in this case Ophelia’s sister), but nothing that can’t be handled by the always brilliant Rodney Lizcano as Polonius and Ava Kostia as Laertes.

The relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet becomes more of a “how could you?” in-your-face confrontation as a mother-daughter scene. There’s always seemed to be a little hesitation in the usual mother-son scene when it comes to discussing sex. Lennie Klingaman as Hamlet has the same passion, the same anger, the same devious schemes, the same mood swings, and the same skill with the sword as any male Hamlet I’ve seen. Nonissue.

One complication that arises, however, is the line of heritage. If Hamlet were a woman, isn’t it true that she never would have inherited the throne because daughters were not given a place in the line of descent then? Should it not lessen Claudius’s need to murder his brother, because he would have been King eventually anyway? In his admission of guilt, however, he does list ambition first as being his most powerful motive … with his lust for Gertrude coming in a poor third.

Some interesting omissions and additions to the script make this HAMLET even more distinct. During the Players’ depiction of the murder of Gonzago (i.e., the King), they add a humorous dumbshow version of the murder in which several methods are attempted unsuccessfully—which makes everyone laugh. Then they reenact the same scene seriously, which achieves the desired effect. The scene in which Claudius and Laertes plan the death of Hamlet by poison has been cut. For us old Shakespeare-goers, it was fine. But for someone seeing the play for the first time, it might have seemed confusing.

The set—a snow-covered garden and an anteroom in the castle—provides ghostly shadows for the King’s appearance and hiding places for Polonius to spy, and opens up to become Ophelia’s grave. The lighting by Stephen C. Jones is especially dramatic. The costumes are stately and beautiful, especially Gertrude’s court gowns. Hamlet only seems comfortable when she is able to get out of her high-necked, long-sleeved, constricting female garb and into a more loosely draped skirt and boots. She’s a girl, but she’s also a tomboy.

WOW factor: 8.5