This year’s Shakespearean installment at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne features an all-female cast that presents The Bard’s famous vengeful son in a truly refreshing manner. Readers are probably familiar with the highly publicized footnote that men and boys were the only performers before-, during-, and shortly after Shakespearean-era theater. Thus, what can any cast–five hundred years after Shakespeare’s death–do to breathe new life into this story of vengeance? While this highly talented troupe of Hamlet remains true to the Elizabethan era language, the performance simultaneously serves as an appealing alternative to those familiar with the tragedy and as a progressive introduction to Shakespeare for any young audience member.
I’ll spare you the synopsis for two clear reasons: You either know the play (probably from high school or college), or you don’t know the play. Members from both of these camps should catch this two-week running because Shakespeare’s words and plotlines have a proclivity to offer more to an audience each and every time. This performance can be a fantastic opportunity to ease the uninitiated into the pinnacle of the classic tragedies. For those who know the text but have yet to see it performed live, there may not be a better opportunity to have “See a Shakespearean play” struck from a bucket list. Lastly, for those who have seen a film version, read the play, or viewed a mixed-gender live performance, please note that it is likely that this female cast will still impress and provide something different than ever before.
Halee Bandt exhibits great range in emotion and presence as young Prince Hamlet from the opening sequence to the final critical moments. Her masterful handling of multiple dense monologues establishes her among the elite performers to grace this historic stage. Fort Wayne theater veteran Kate Black excels as Claudius, whose staunchy presence builds the required, obvious tension throughout each scene. Nancy Kartholl, who recently appeared in Faith Healer as Grace, thrives as Polonius, whose protection of his daughter and whose loyalty to the king serves as a recurring battle with the title character. Returning to the stage after a decade-long hiatus is June Rambo, whose performance of right-hand-man Horatio was among the most noteworthy of this large cast. Additionally, newcomer Izzy Chilian proves she belongs in the theater with her impressive secondary role as the prince’s love interest Ophelia. Kira Downey, an admitted fan of Shakespeare, astounds as the Ghost. Her passion for Shakespeare’s language is apparent and her performance arrests the audience in each of her scenes. Finally of note, the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are executed quite well by Tala Munsterman and Marissa Steiber, respectively. The remaining actors of this outstanding twenty-member cast all serve as worthwhile catalysts throughout the play.
Directed by Thom Hofrichter, Hamlet might be just what American society needs in 2018. While it may be too soon to state that the play is experiencing a coast-to-coast resurgence, the themes within it could not be more relevant. In his director’s notes, Hofrichter suggests there may be more to the opening line “Who’s there?” than just the curiosity of a soldier who is not sure if he’s just seen the spirit of a recently deceased king. The play has existential undertones and guides audiences to find a part of themselves in Hamlet. The oft-quoted reflection monologue (“To be or not to be…”) potentially encapsulates a second level of self-identity and self-worth when performed by a female.
Not to be overlooked with this performance is the costume design of Jeanette Walsh. Through an atypical, erratic pattern, each character’s clothes work well to suggest a profound sense of individuality–a theme that has always been apparent in this play but is even more so in this production. IPFW theater professor John O’Connell lends his deep resumé as fight director. Additionally, Rae Surface returns as the technical director and appears as two separate characters.
This sturdy ensemble cast carries with it the shadows of generations of women who, it stands to reason, were unsung heroes on some level in society. This direct challenge of theater traditions, especially with the expectations that accompany any of Shakespeare’s titles, sends a clear message that those traditions must stay in the past. It further serves as a vivid reminder of what had to happen over the past several centuries for the public to have access to Shakespeare’s work performed by a cast of females who range from middle-school aged young ladies to seasoned stage veteran performers.