The play's the thing in Adirondack Shakespeare's cross-gender "Hamlet"

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LENOX — In an unusual turn of events, on Saturday, "Hamlet" is coming to Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse.

Unusual? It shouldn't be news that Shakespeare & Company would host what many consider the greatest of Shakespeare's plays. It's part of their name, after all.

What is unusual is this production of "Hamlet" is not being produced by the resident company. Instead, it's a rental production offered by Adirondack Shakespeare Company, a traveling troupe out of New York State. The closest thing they have to a permanent home is a summer residency at Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks.

In the spring and fall they perform mostly at schools and offer a few public performances at rented spaces. They are also performing "Hamlet" at the G.E. Theatre in Proctors in Schenectady, N.Y. on Sunday. This is their first foray to the Berkshires.

In an interview with artistic director Tara Bradway, she explained they are renting the Tina Packer Playhouse on the assumption that if any theater space would have a receptive audience to appreciate the Bard, it is the one developed by Shakespeare & Company.

Making this production even more unusual is that Bradway also is playing the title role. Bradway insists the casting choice is not to bring a feminist approach to the text, nor is it vanity casting. Indeed, it is part of the company's philosophy that anyone can and should play Hamlet.

"This is our fourth production of `Hamlet' and the third year in a row we are doing the play. Preparing for the second production, we sent out a notice to our acting company to see who would be interested in the role. We got 20 replies from actors who wanted to do it. As we thought about it, we realized how every actor would bring something unique to the character. We decided to produce it on an annual basis with a different Hamlet to find the many shadings of this complex and complicated character. So casting a woman in the role is very natural for us."

She admits that it is probably impossible for a female playing an iconic male not to alter the audience's perception of the character. "I am a woman. I have curves, long hair, a softer voice and other feminine qualities. But, this is not a gender-bending concept. Ophelia is played by a woman, not a male. Our focus is on the character, not the sex of the character."

Indeed, there will be several male roles played by females — among others, Polonius, Fortinbras, Horatio. The reason for this, Bradway says, is the ratio of females to males is quite high in the company.

She returns to the theme of multiple actors performing "Hamlet" for the company. "Three male actors who have played Hamlet for us are in this production. Their presence and knowledge of the character helps inform the entire production," she says

Gender neutral casting fits the company's aesthetic as well. Their mission statement states that their goal is to produce work that is "unburdened by spectacle and technology, but rather focuses on what matters most: the play." Bradway says this is liberating for the company and the audience. "Our set, props and costumes are so minimal that they can fit in the trunk of maybe two cars," she laughs.

But she turns serious when she adds, "It's not only about budget. It's about liberating the imagination. We provide just enough visuals to provide necessary information. The rest is up to the actor and the audience."

What has she learned in the performance of "Hamlet?"

"It's a marathon. I admire the strength and energy of anyone who has played the role." She jokes saying, "Hamlet never stops talking. Sometimes I'm glad when he dies."

She does make the point there are no edits in the text. "We use the entire script." Then, as if in awe of the accomplishment, she says, "And every time we perform it, it comes in at 2 hours, 40 minutes. It plays so fast, I can hardly believe it."

Bradway says her major discovery is the "many layers of love that exist within the text. I think a female in the role helps unlock the softer and emotional side of Hamlet. A female playing the role might not be a choice everyone will like, but there are discoveries to be made."


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