Gender bending with the Bard
by Shirley Lorraine
Imagine being given the chance to play what is considered by many to be the greatest role ever written – Hamlet. But what if you are a woman – and too young for the role? These scenarios and others are put under the microscope of thought in Ojai Art Center’s current production of Women Playing Hamlet by William Missouri Downs.
A West Coast Premiere performance filled with a cadre of more than capable actresses playing all roles (female as well as male), Women will delight Bard fans in its scrutiny, analysis and revelations. One does not have to be a student of Shakespeare or even a fan to understand all the references although the puns are even more amusing if one has at least a passing familiarity.
Billed as a Comedy about a Tragedy, the two-act performance brings forth laughter, questions, answers and a preponderance of ponderings amidst a background of reality colliding with downright absurdity. Instead of men playing all the roles, in Women, ladies get to embody all the parts, fully embracing the opportunity to poke fun at the opposite sex. No doubt Sir William would have approved.
Enhancing the action further is the employment of power point presentations to clarify characters, history and specific points of interest. Set in the present and complete with current vernacular and attitudes, things move along swiftly and smoothly. The audience is frequently involved as well, encouraged to contribute comments and responses.
The cast is led by Cecily Hendricks as Jessica, a young actress led into theatrical waters over her head. In her quest to embody the classic role with intellectual understanding, she interacts with characters of all walks of life who offer advice, cautions, introspections and fresh perspectives. Hendricks gives a clear, strong performance with an air of confidence and vulnerability that is endearing throughout.
A delightful ensemble of quirky characters play significant roles in Jessica’s journey. The myriad colorful personalities are portrayed by Peggy Steketee, Shelby Sandefur, Angela DeCicco, Tracy Sutton and Sindy McKay, all to hilarious stereotypical perfection. Part of the enjoyment, for me, was wondering what character, male or female, each would present next. Adding to the merriment is that all the actors appear to be having a marvelous time in their often outrageous (and most probably way out of personal character) portrayals.
Director Larry Swerdlove, set designer Steve Provonost and costumer Tracy Sutton also are fully immersed in the playfulness and intellectual grandeur of the material, presenting fanciful visual accents throughout. Minimal set movement gives the actors even more ways to shine. Ms. Sutton’s creative costuming touches add character definition and dimension as well.
Note the 7:30 curtain time – you will not want to miss the first critical thirty minutes of this production.
Women Playing Hamlet was an excellent choice for the Art Center’s 2017 season. It offers a new work, a stellar cast, much laughter, thought-provoking material and Ojai in the springtime. Put this one on your must-see list.
Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery Street, (805) 640-8797 www.OjaiACT.org
All seats $18, Seniors/Students/Art Center Members $15 Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays 2:00 p.m.