ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Fern Theatre gives unique, fascinating spin on “Hamlet” with an all-female cast

Review: Fern Theatre gives unique, fascinating spin on “Hamlet” with an all-female cast

(Photo courtesy The Fern Theatre Company)
(Photo courtesy The Fern Theatre Company)
Stephanie Willis as Hamlet. (Photo courtesy The Fern Theatre Company)

It’s highly likely that most diehard theater patrons have seen a production of Hamlet (or two or three) over the years somewhere. It’s a safe bet, however, that few have seen an all-female version of the Shakespeare tragedy. That’s what the Fern Theatre is currently offering. Running through October 26, it’s not a seamless night of theater but it does prove to be absorbing. 

Under the vision of Jessica Fern Hunt, the company’s co-artistic director, this Hamlet drops its normal large cast for a pared down version. Here it’s done — somewhat amazingly — with only seven players. Stephanie Willis is the main character, dead set on taking revenge on her uncle Claudius (Erin Considine), who has murdered his brother/Hamlet’s father and risen to the throne, taking Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Jennifer Lee), as his wife.  

Hamlet is being presented in the Backstage Theatre of 7 Stages, a small, intimate house where the audience can be dangerously close to the performers at times. It’s a simple staging. The costuming is pretty modern, with Hamlet clad in a leather jacket, and the set is mostly bare save for some signs suggesting the political climate. Yet Hunt is able to give many of the scenes some imaginative touches with music and lighting cues. The gravedigger and ghost scenes are vivid — as are the fight scenes — and Hunt gives her show a definite sense of mood. 

The director has done this without changing much — if anything — from the classic text. It’s certainly interesting to see monologues and lines usually delivered by men done by women. The play doesn’t make any real statement on gender here. It may take a while to get used to, but to its credit it becomes the play it sets out to be. 

In her program notes, Hunt says her world of Hamlet is inspired by the Fascist leaders of the 1930s and 1940s. She also states that since no real-world scenario would allow Denmark to be all female, she wanted to make her Denmark one that does not include Hamlet. Lead actress Willis brings that out. Initially her take on the character could be Everyman (or Everywoman). She gives her Hamlet a sense of normalcy yet an air of not belonging, looking from the outside. As the play wears on, Willis brings out the intensity and vindictive side of the character.

Generally, the cast is quite strong. Josie Burgin Lawson plays five characters altogether — Polonius, the Ghost, Osrick, Francisco, and a gravedigger — and she is subdued and focused. Considine offers up an imperious take on Claudius. She’s power hungry, yet charismatic. Kirstin Calvert doubles as Horatio and Guildenstern while Mary Ruth Ralston plays Laertes, Marcellus and the Player King. All are well done. As Ophelia, Jennifer Alice Acker can overdo it at times, but she quickly dives into other roles, such as Rosencrantz. The only really weak link is Lee, who doesn’t give Gertrude much in the way of gravitas. 

What doesn’t always work is the direction. Hunt gives her players the freedom any ensemble adores. The players take advantage with their individual styles, some underplaying, others overemoting. At times, though, it might have been advisable to rein them in. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and Hunt proves that here. She lets Ophelia drift (and drift and drift) into madness in some extraneous moments. Act II lasts over an hour and a half, and it can be a butt-numbing experience. It’s also unfortunate that the climactic moment — unlike any other leading up to it — lacks the emotion the play has built up to. 

What’s missing here as well is the kind of ingenious take a Georgia Shakespeare could have given it. This isn’t just stunt casting, but a little more vision and creativity could have made the play more urgent. 

The Fern Theatre is a young company that began producing in 2012. Having seen two productions there now, (including an uneven The Baltimore Waltz), I can’t say I’m still entirely sure what kind of theater the company wants to produce. (This production falls under their “Classically Female Series,” which includes a an engaging 2013 all-female version of Macbeth as well.)  Nonetheless, this Hamlet is unique and impressive. It’s a version of the Bard’s work that can stand on its own. 

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