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‘Hamlet 50/50’ foregrounds women, loses Hamlet

| Monday, August 28, 2023

Trey Paine | The Observer

“Hamlet 50/50,” adapted by Vanessa Morosco and Peter Simon Hilton from Shakespeare‘s “Hamlet,” strove to create gender equity in the workplace for theatre professionals, rearranging the source material so that 50 percent of the lines were delivered by women characters. The show premiered at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and ran Aug. 17-27. As a play, it was well-produced, well-acted and was an overall enjoyable experience. The adaptation itself, however, had mixed success in how it rearranged some of the lines traditionally delivered by men for the sake of gender equity and fundamentally changed the some of the more traditional portrayals of certain characters.

I felt the changes found success in dealing with Ophelia (Madeline Calais). To make her part larger and foreground her as a character, Ophelia was given lines usually spoken by other male characters. The most significant of these changes was giving her Hamlet’s famous Act 3 “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. In the speech, he contemplates suicide, asking but never answering the existential question whether it is better “To be, or not to be.” In “Hamlet 50/50,” Ophelia gives an answer. She delivers the soliloquy after she has descended into madness and right before she commits suicide. This change fits well, creating a new and very powerful moment for her where the audience gets to see her inner thoughts and grief before she ends her life. Giving her the most famous soliloquy also includes her in the “thinking” nature of the play, where she was previously excluded because she gets to connect to the audience, moving her from a side-character that was basically a plot device to one that is more central and fleshed out.

Gertrude (TayLar), the only other female character in Shakespeare’s version, has a much more powerful role in “Hamlet 50/50” as reigning queen after her husband is killed by his brother Claudius (Peter Simon Hilton), taking on some of his lines in the production. In Shakespeare’s version, Claudius is the one who becomes king after he commits the murder and marries Gertrude. I enjoyed seeing Gertrude portrayed as a powerful queen, but it came at the cost of Claudius’ character motivation. Claudius kills his brother and marries Gertrude for the political power he gains from seizing the throne in the original text. Hamlet must then both avenge his father’s murder and the usurpation of his crown.

In this version, there is no political motivation for Claudius to have killed the king since he is only the queen’s consort after the murder and Gertrude is portrayed as innocent in the murder plot. This muddies some of the previously central political intrigue because there appears to be very little reason for Claudius to have killed the king and Hamlet (Xavier Edward King) does not indicate that he feels that his mother has usurped the throne like Claudius clearly does in Shakespeare’s text.

Aside from increasing the size of the parts of Gertrude and Ophelia, the adaptation casted Horatio (Becca Ballenger) as a woman who took control of the Danish royal court at the end instead of Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, seizing power with his invading army. This worked well because it felt like a fitting point of closure. They also replaced the side characters of Bernardo and Francisco — who first see the ghost of the king — with Susanna (Melíza Gutierrez) and Maria (Colleen McLinden), which worked for the intention of upping both the number of women onstage and the number of lines spoken by women. They did, however, take out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely which made me a bit sad because those characters are funny. Overall, it felt like, for the sake of equity, the play centered less around Hamlet and his inner thoughts and more around the various political machinations of the royal court of Denmark as it foregrounded female characters.

I think 50/50 Shakespeare as a project is doing amazing work bringing such important texts of the English literary canon, originally written for all-male acting troupes, into the 21st century. “Hamlet,” however, was difficult to start with because of its usual focus on Hamlet’s inner response to external conflicts. While there are points where the adaptation is wildly successful, there are also points where that difficulty shows.

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