Theater Review: Her Hamlet

Her Hamlet. By Lisa Jackson-Schebetta and Theo Allyn. Directed by Lisa Schebetta-Jackson. With Theo Allyn and Robert Frankenberry. Joint production from the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre with Shakespeare-in-the-Schools. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. October 5-13, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM, Sunday Matinees at 2PM, ASL Interpretation Performance Saturday, October 13 at 8PM.

Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on’t—Frailty, thy name is woman!

(Hamlet Act I, scene II, 142-146)

Frailty, thy name is woman.

But not so in the daring new production, Her Hamlet (presented by the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre) where a hitherto obscure historical figure—William Shakespeare’s youngest daughter, Judith—takes wonderfully invigorating control of center stage. True, Judith (played commandingly by Theo Allyn, Teaching Artist-in-Residence at the University of Pittsburgh) comes to us as a young woman trying earnestly to piece together an understanding of her absentee father William from the scraps of play texts he has left behind in their Stratford-upon-Avon home. And doubly true, Judith is a troubled character: she attempts to build an understanding of her father with the aid of (and often against impediments from) her “imaginary” friend, none other than Yorick—the court jester that appears in the Hamlet play texts only as a skull and a mention. But this is not an Elizabethan- or Shakespearean-focused production, nor is it one that pretends to be: this is a wholly unique theatrical creature that gives audiences a much-needed alternate look at the legacy of the Bard and the wake his dubious—if also under-catalogued—history has left behind.

This one-act play is billed as “Her Hamlet: based on Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare,” which is both true and completely beside the point. The truth: yes, so much rests upon the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia whom many of us have encountered in our high-school or college English classes. The deviation from the truth: well, that’s the interesting part. Despite ostensibly centering on the true-to-fact daughter of the Bard, Her Hamlet is no Elizabethan period piece. Nor does it restrict itself to the original Hamlet text (or original three, if you want to be scholarly about it). No, Her Hamlet takes thrilling leaps across the centuries between now and the true Judith’s own lifetime to present audiences with a layered and nuanced portrait of a woman about whom history remembers essentially nothing, but who gives us a unique and invaluable window into both one of our most cherished and culturally valuable figures, Willam Shakespeare, and the struggles modern-day women face in coming to terms with their own representation in cannonical English literature.

Her Hamlet does take tremendous liberties with chronology. It opens (more or less) with Judith reciting the well-remembered “To be or not to be” soliloquy from the later Hamlet texts with which we are all so familiar (from the second quarto and first folio, for Shakespeare purists like myself). The first character audiences meet is actually Yorick (played keenly by Robert Frankenberry, who also composed and performs the play’s entire score) musing over a skull, the very same image we all have of Yorick from the original Hamlet texts. As if that were not enough, the stage itself is quite a lot to wrap one’s head around: the back stage harbors a netting-and-fabric willow supporting a Raddedy-Ann doll—a striking reinterpretation of the famous John Evertt Millais painting that inspired Kenneth Branagh’s treatment of the character Ophelia—which becomes all the more poignant for those familiar with the debate over Ophelia’s death (but that is for another aritcle). Frankenberry shares the stage as Yorick with Allyn’s Judith for the length of the play, but is still central to the story, being the perturbingly present embodiment of what was originally a ghostly, tertiary character. Judith’s father, the William Shakespeare, never makes a single appearance, and so Yorick, whom Judith expressly says she “has made up,” is an electrically understated foil to the man we all think we know and expect to see but never do.

When we hear “based on Shakespeare,” we do not generally expect to hear “dude” or see flashlights and swimming goggles on stage, but that is what Her Hamlet gives us. There is a distinct shift that happens time and again where the audience is brought from recitations of the play texts Judith has recovered in her home back to modern parlance, where the audience is presented with a very up-to-date woman in the same Judith who expresses the self-assertivenes that we have come to expect from modern performers. It plays wonderfully off two pivotal quotations from Shakepeare’s contemporary (and often critic) Ben Jonson: first, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”; and second, “I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted out a thousand.'” And so it is with Her Hamlet: it is not concerned with providing a period piece portraying the Bard’s youngest daughter in strict historicity so much as it is willing to transgress the bounds of chronology to provide an audience with a woman who is both searching for her place in her own family (after the death of her fraternal twin brother Hamnet, none the less) and who embodies the idea that Jonson ascribed to her father: she is beyond the bounds of her historical context: she is a woman for all ages.

For those who are Bard afficiondaos, the careful play-goer will catch references to other bits of Hamlet as well as snippets from King John, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a musical treatment of The Tempest (by Frankenberry as Yorick) to name a few. For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s body of work, Theo Allyn provides a magnetic depiction of a young woman struggling to understand herself through the fragments of plays her father—the father “of scraps and patches”—has left behind. Both Allyn and Frankenberry command the stage for an all-too-short play that reënvisions typical treatments of cannonical characters and begs, begs, begs for more daring treatments of all-too-well-worn theatrical source-material. If you love Shakespeare’s penned work, then here is your chance for a fresh look at familiar theatrical ground. If you have never cared for Shakespeare’s work, then here is a play to stir your interests. Either way, Her Hamlet is a unique and refreshing theatrical experience.


Filed under: Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts