Take “Hamlet,” put it in a washing machine and run it through all the tumbling, topsy-turvy, scrub-a-dub-dub cycles, and you get “Women Playing Hamlet,” a right smart piece of theater.
See the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance production of “Women Playing Hamlet,” and you experience high-level collegiate theater.
Invigoration starts immediately. As central character Jessica, Guinevere Casper arrives at front center stage and speaks to the audience, looking directly into individual eyes. When Jessica asks questions, she demands response.
There is nothing shy about Jessica, much less Guinevere Casper. The role is akin to cliff diving, with a lot of thinking and emotional rollercoastering along the way. Guinevere Casper’s performance is bold, brisk, sure, comical, fluid, frenetic and all the stuff of outstanding.
The production all around has UWGB’s mark of preparedness, this time guided by director John Mariano of the faculty.
The spark point of the story: Jessica has been cast to play Hamlet in a New York City production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Heretofore, her major credit has been a 13-week stint on a TV soap as Rachel Buttonhole, who, alas, ended up being eaten by wolves. Daunted and met at every step by the comment, “You’re too young (28) to play Hamlet (30),” Jessica seeks a coach-for-hire. At the hands of coach Gwen (Carly Jossart), Jessica is analyzed, theatricalized, scrubbed, scoured, thumped and soured – all for the sake of trying to find her key to portraying Hamlet.
Side note: In his program notes, director John Mariano has an entertaining line of his philosophy from his class on directing: “… I use ‘Hamlet’ as the sample play to analyze, based mostly on the idea that if you can figure out this one, the rest will be easier.”
Jessica’s sessions with Gwen are interspersed with flashbacks or simply present-time flashes to people in Jessica’s life – with a standing joke that just about every one of them as an MFA – master of fine arts in theater.
The array of characters is richly played, with a lot of sending up, mocking or plain joking along the way. There is tongue-in-cheekiness all around in such characters as the unctuous Psychiatrist (Haley Ebinal), pun-loving Gravedigger (Colleen Cline), MFA-armed Starbucks Actress (Kylie Heisz), too-accommodating Priest (Chay Austyn Schmitt) and Jessica’s computer-geeky niece Emily (Megan Jones).
Each character gets an individualized description on video screens on each side of the performance space. There are jokes to be had in their resume, like the Humanities Professor’s writing credit in “Cliff Notes”: (Anonymous).
One of the largest jokes comes in the bit about Jessica’s life mirroring Hamlet’s, only Jessica one-ups Hamlet. Hamlet’s uncle murdered Hamlet’s father, then married Hamlet’s mother a month later. Jessica’s father has died, and Jessica’s hormonal mother (Andi Koene) has married Jessica’s uncle the night before Jessica’s father’s funeral. That the scene takes place in a closet is a mere tip of the iceberg called BIZARRE.
The play also takes a large looping arc as it takes the true history of famous women who played Hamlet and has Jessica meet up with them in a fanciful (and haunting way) at the climax.
This production is a delight. Guinevere Casper is a delight.
A treat for me was just having seen an excellent production of “Hamlet” by Hysterical Productions of Oshkosh (with performances remaining at 7:30 p.m. March 1 and 2) and then seeing this sure-fire production of “Women Playing Hamlet.” Each production pounces on the material as a cheetah does prey.
Creative: Playwright – William Missouri Downs; director – John Mariano; scenic designer – Wendy Huber; costume designer – Kaoime E. Malloy; sound designer/technical director – Dinesh Yadav; lighting designer/projection coordinator – Matthew Beecher; assistant technical director – David Cook; properties master and artisan – Hayden Barlass; stage manager – Madison Sagen
Jessica – Guinevere Casper
Humanities Professor/Barfly/Gravedigger – Colleen Cline
Psychiatrist/Lord Derby – Haley Ebinal
Starbucks Actress/Home Shopping Host/Rosy – Kylie Heisz
Gwen/Ghost – Carly Jossart
Mother/Bartender/Gilda – Andi Koene
Priest/Home Shopping Model/Bike Messenger – Chay Austyn Schmitt
Emily – Megan Jones
Running time: One hour, 45 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. March 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9
NEXT: “Dance Works,” April 6-7.
VENUE: Jean Weidner Theatre is a fully outfitted black-box space (no adornments; focus on the stage) located in the southeast corner of the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The space is devoted to UWGB Theatre and Dance programs. Entrance is by way of a set of steps in a “L” in a hallway connecting the theater to the outside in one direction and the rest of the large building in the other. The room has height – more than two stories. The audience enters at approximately a second-story level. Viewing is downward, like that of an amphitheater. The performance space is intimate, demanding that the actors be focused on stage, despite being surrounded by prying eyes. The theater is the smallest of three contained in the Weidner Center.
THE PERSON: Jean Weidner was a psychotherapist and wife of Edward Weidner, founding chancellor of UWGB. The Weidners had four children. Jean Weidner died in 1997. A memorial service was held for her on the stage of the
Contact me at . Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.