Theater review:

Shades of Kurt Cobain haunt Cohesion Theatre Company's gender-blind 'Hamlet'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
At Cohesion Theatre, something's gender-blind in the state of Denmark.

The brooding Danish prince looks like Kurt Cobain, reads "Trainspotting" and clearly has issues in Cohesion Theatre Company's staging of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." That this grunge-evoking character, plagued by "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," is played by a woman adds to the intriguing layers in a generally persuasive production.

The notion of a female Hamlet is not exactly radical today. It wasn't all that radical in ages past. The quite long list of actresses in the role includes two famous Sarahs — Siddons in the 18th century; and Bernhardt, who left a tantalizing bit of her Hamlet on celluloid in 1900 when she was in her 50s. Several women have continued the tradition since, on both sides of the Atlantic.

One reason given for the gender switch is that the role already has a pronounced feminine side, so a woman can more easily bring that out.

Alice Stanley, director of Cohesion's "Hamlet," describes in a program note a different goal -- to move the play's "focus from the political and intellectual to the emotional and intuitive."

That led to casting not only a female Hamlet, but a female Horatio and Laertes as well. Two more women were chosen for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, though these characters are transferred to hand puppets manipulated by the actors. (Those puppets wear out their welcome pretty quickly.)

Whether these adjustments, along with the updating of the piece to 1993 Seattle, unleash all those "emotional and intuitive" elements in "Hamlet" in a revelatory manner can be debated. But the result certainly clicks theatrically.

Performed up-close and personal at the Church on the Square in Canton, the play — edited down in text and number of characters — moves briskly and tautly under Stanley's guidance on a spare set designed by Casey Dutt. The feeling of an inexorable force pushing everyone toward a bloody end is neatly achieved.

The plaid-shirt-and-jeans-wearing Hamlet of Caitlin Carbone exudes an edgy mix of angst, rebelliousness and libido. Her acting is unforced, often subtly drawn, qualities that result in a telling delivery of the "To be or not to be" passage.

Note, too, Carbone's ease with the sexually charged moments, especially the suggestive business with Ophelia (Sarah Lamar) while the play-within-the-play is underway.

Lamar impresses throughout, suggesting a naive grunge-groupie grateful to be caught up in Hamlet's orbit. She excels in the mad scene, clutching a bottle of scotch and singing about St. Valentine's Day as she wanders across the stage in her underwear. A chilling moment.

There are dynamic performances from Shannon Ziegler as the faithful Horatio and Melanie Glickman as a particularly propulsive Laertes.

Martin Ealy gives the murderous Claudius a nicely soft-grained touch approach that underlines the character's crafty, slimy nature all the more. Ealy contrasts that with all-out force playing the vengeful ghost of Hamlet's father.

As Hamlet's mother Gertrude, Katharine Vary effectively captures the nervousness bubbling beneath the dignified veneer, suggesting a proud CEO who knows the stock is about to be severely devalued. Vary shines in the big confrontation scene with an accusing Hamlet and the high-body-count finale.

The production also has a substantial asset in Lyle Smythers. He brings abundant color to the role of Polonius, tapping into the humor of the "brevity is the soul of wit" dialogue with particular relish. He likewise reveals subtle flair as the Gravedigger.

The rest of the ensemble delivers solid, vibrant support.

In addition to deft costuming, a good deal of atmospheric lighting gives the sparse staging richer dimension. The frequent use of shadow puppetry proves more or less effective. Kathleen Stanley's music provides a vivid finishing touch.

Only in its second season, Cohesion has made an admirable mark on the local ensemble theater scene with imaginative choices of material and concepts. This "Hamlet" reconfirms "what a piece of work" the company is.

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If you go

The Cohesion Theatre Company production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" continues through March 20 at Church on the Square, 1025 S. Potomac Ave. Tickets are $10 to $20. Go to cohesiontheatre.org/tickets.

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