“What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1) Alas, poor reader, I knew it well, but alt-hamlet is it not. To be fair, it is not intended to be a play structured like Hamlet but one that takes a satirical look at the nature of women’s rights in the post-Roe v. Wade world.
alt-Hamlet, written and directed by Suzanne Willett, loosely uses Hamlet’s plotting and character types in a carnivalesque/grotesque black comedy. Inspired by the US Supreme Court’s 2022 decision on abortion rights, Willett penned an indictment of the court’s imposition of legally sanctioned restrictions on women’s control over their bodies. She uses Hamlet as the vehicle for the story since it was a play centered on the Elizabethan view of inheritance as a right. Her play centers on a woman’s right to control her body. She also uses pregnancy and “morning-after” and “abortion” pills as elements in the story. While the topics dealt with are important, this production does not effectively deliver on those topics, not for want of trying, but because of the venue and some directorial choices. It reads better than it plays.
Willett uses the on-again, off-again pregnant twin sisters Susan (Leah Barker) and Bella (Miranda Renée) as the protagonists who drive the story of revenge and sacrifice to its unsettling ending. After the sisters are told that their mother has been found dead, they are forced to return to their father Mitchell’s (Alessandro Caronna) home, in the town of Hamlet. He married their Aunt Ginni (Yuliya Donovan) after their mother, Gloria B (voice-over by Donovan), mysteriously died after being confined to a mental hospital.
The sisters believe that their father and aunt are responsible for the death of their mother and are determined to get at the truth. They devise a plan to act out as if they are mentally unstable and do so from the perspective of their academic focus: Susan from economics and Bella from psychology. Charlotte (Katy Shafer) and Phyllis (Emily Ann Banks), the daughters of Thomas (Davon Howard), the principal advisor to Mitchell, play roles in the ensuing plot.
Charlotte is torn between supporting her father’s wishes and developing a relationship with Susan and Bella. Phyllis is the daughter who appears to support her father and is the character who leads to the denouement.
Caronna and Donovan are the most carnivalesque characters in costume and performance. Caronna solidly embodies the qualities of a carnival barker in his satirical presentation of a corporate CEO. Donovan adds a spider-like physicality to her depiction of a conniving CEO’s wife with grand expectations for their control of the town of Hamlet. Their major project is to build a church representing their worldview, namely corporate control of everything. Caronna and Donovan are true to an “over the top” bravura that would be expected of carnival performers. They provide the two best characterizations of the show, although the other actors also do solid work.
Barker, Renée, and Shafer make their characters believable, but the direction does not do justice to their performances. Their actions on stage are frequently so manic that they distract from the critical dialogue’s subtlety. A slower, more measured presentation would help to clarify the complexity of the issues at the heart of the play. Banks’ performance as Phyllis, Charlotte’s sister, is more nuanced in the presentation of one of the critical elements of the plot. Her interactions with Howard, who plays her father, and other characters are more measured in tone and cadence.
Davon Howard’s portrayal of Thomas, the counsel to Mitchell, is particularly note-worthy in the way he moves and stands. He bends his body to the left or the right and, at times, walks with an uneven gait, physically showing some of the duplicitous nature of the character. It is subtle but effective.
The limited space of the venue presents a significant challenge for the set design by Nadie King, and it is not effective, given the scope of alt-Hamlet. I have seen productions of Hamlet that were more concerned with the words than the setting and operated with limited sets. In this case, Willett’s direction does not focus enough on the words, so the sets become an issue.
The lighting design by Zach Dulny effectively moves the focus of the action within the various settings. The lighting is essential in this production in directing the audience’s attention to elements of the action that would be depicted in a scene change in a larger venue. The lighting acts as a scene-changing device without changing the physical setting.
Gabrielle Marino’s costume design captures the absurdist, carnivalesque nature of the production. Although no sound designer is listed, it should be noted that several instances of Voice Over dialogue are handled with sound and lighting combined to good effect.
alt-Hamlet (through September 24, 2023)
Silver Glass Productions and The Players Theatre
The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre (3rd-floor loft) at The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougall Street, Manhattan
For tickets, visit https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1155825
Running time: one hour and 49 minutes without an intermission