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“Get thee to a nunnery” is high up on the list of William Shakespeare’s most famous insults. Hamlet lobs the line at Ophelia, his paramour of sorts, when she tries to return a stack of love letters while he’s in the middle of a family crisis.
The tragic plotline may be familiar—his dad just died, his mother promptly married his uncle, there’s a ghost haunting the castle, etc.—but in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s quietly mind-blowing new production of Hamlet, directed by Eleanor Holdridge, Ophelia clutches a rosary when she wanders in to dump her boyfriend. It’s a tiny Catholic detail that makes our hero seem like so much less of an incel dick.
Suddenly, everything tracks. Some scholars think Shakespeare was a closeted papist, and Hamlet is chock-full of references to piety and prayers. (“Heavenly powers, restore him!” Ophelia says as she exits, not leaving for a convent.) The story is set before the Lutheran church overran the Nordics, and regardless, this is a modern dress Hamlet. Why not make the Dane more sympathetic? And why not make it even more apparent that Ophelia is a woman without agency—we all know her father, Polonius, is hiding behind the arras and calling the shots.
Adding a rosary to the get-thee-to-a-nunnery scene is just one of many revelatory directorial choices in Chesapeake Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Holdridge chairs Catholic University’s drama department and has directed at several of Washington’s second-tier theaters. Oddly, she’s been given bigger stages out of town, including last year’s world premiere of D.C. playwright Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Soprano at the Alley Theatre in Houston. She’ll also direct the play at Olney Theatre next year.
And yet neither of D.C.’s two major theaters historically devoted to the Bard have tapped Holdridge to direct one of his plays. Both Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger are now under new leadership that has pledged to diversify their stages and expand their missions. In the midst of this transition, both have lately looked like Shakespeare apologists, only staging his plays with celebrities (John Douglas Thompson as Shylock, Patrick Page as Lear, both at STC) or major gimmicks (Folger’s Midsummer at the National Building Museum and STC’s Much Ado set in TV studio, both with doctored scripts and neither that well performed).
Here’s the thing: We aren’t even 10 years out from productions directed by men, featuring nearly all White casts, being business as usual at STC and Folger. A decade was not enough time to plumb new depths that are possible with a woman in the director’s chair and BIPOC actors onstage, and I worry that in the rush to expand the canon, it’s going to be harder to find good, show-me-something-new Shakespeare, featuring local talent, in the District.
You might have to get thee to Baltimore.
Ophelia’s rosary is the tip of Holdridge’s interpretive iceberg. Elana Michelle, the actor playing Ophelia, is Black, as are the actors playing her father (DeJeanette Horne) and brother, Laertes (JC Payne). This is not “color-blind” casting like Hamilton; it’s a fascinating subtext. Holdridge seems to be suggesting that the King’s chief of staff is a marginalized social climber living the Danish American dream, but not entirely secure in his family’s position. There’s good reason for Polonius to warn to his daughter that Hamlet, the White prince, could not possibly intend marriage. Horne’s delivery is very James Earl Jones, hardly the doddering old fool that many productions make Polonius out to be. He’s believable as a wise dad giving his son “the talk,” when he sends Laertes off to university with classic adages such as “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
As Claudius, Marcus Kyd is as calm and calculating as a prestige TV villain. (D.C. audiences may know him as the ringleader of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company.) Kyd occasionally takes a few moments to stride toward the audience and think, before turning back toward his fellow actors to announce his plan.
Holdridge also took the liberty of rearranging the order of a few scenes and made judicious cuts. The resulting Hamlet is a fast-paced revenge thriller, aided by great use of quick entrances and exits.
Woolly Mammoth company member Misha Kachman designed the simple, effective sets for the Thrust stage, working closely with lighting designer Katie McCreary to create the ambiance of a castle in a building that once served as a Gilded Age bank. (The building was home to a fairly trashy nightclub before the space reopened as a professional, although mostly nonunion, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Theatre in 2014.)
Kyd and Vince Eisenson, who plays the very likable, slightly unhinged, Hamlet, are the cast’s only Actor’s Equity members, but nearly every performance is well crafted. Accusations that Hamlet has gone mad stand in stark contrast to Ophelia’s suicidal ramblings, which everyone at court seems to deny. All of the flowy gowns that costume designer Gail Beach picked for Michelle are embroidered with flowers and look very For Love & Lemons, smartly foreshadowing that in the mad scenes she’ll sing of “sweet flowers” draped across a grave and pretend to pass out columbines and pansies.
Not every element completely clicks. The soundtrack is a bit overblown, the romantic relationship between Claudius and Gertrude (Lesley Malin) feels better developed than that between Hamlet and Ophelia, and usually comedic roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never really get off the ground. But these are minor disappointments in a Chesapeake Shakespeare production that otherwise fences well above its weight. A hit, as a courtier says, when Hamlet spars with Laertes in the play’s final scene. A very palpable hit.
Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare and directed by Eleanor Holdridge, runs through May 28 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Theatre in Baltimore. chesapeakeshakespeare.com. $23–$69.