At the Wilma, a 'Hamlet' that upends expectations

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In "Hamlet," Zainab Jah (right) plays Hamlet, and Sarah Gliko is Ophelia. "I think Shakespeare would be used to women playing the part by now," says Wilma Theater artistic director Blanka Zizka. (ALEXANDER IZILIAEV)

That it should come to this!

But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:

So excellent a king; that was, to this,

Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother That he might not beteem the winds of heaven Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!

Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him,

As if increase of appetite had grown By what it fed on: and yet, within a month -

Let me not think on't - Frailty, thy name is woman!

 

When it comes to women and Hamlet - Shakespeare's take on dead patriarchs, lustful queens, and avenging scions - the Bard isn't exactly kind. While that quote starts with the young Hamlet disgusted at his mother's haste in jumping from bed (or rather her husband's grave) to bed (with Hamlet's uncle), it ends with an assault on all womankind, including poor Ophelia.

"If thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them," he tells her.

How, then, would Shakespeare feel about Wilma Theater artistic director Blanka Zizka casting a woman - Zainab Jah, last seen in the Wilma's 2013 The Convert - in the title role? (Zizka follows Hamlet with Tom Stoppard's rudely funny Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, using many of the same actors.)

"I think Shakespeare would be used to women playing the part by now," she says. "Since the mid-18th century, there's been at least 200 productions with a female Hamlet."

Zizka wanted to define her first time directing Hamlet as an investigation, "as if it were a new play that avoided borrowing interpretations and staging ideas that have accumulated over centuries." To that end, she and Walter Bilderback, the Wilma's dramaturge, chucked a good bit of prose.

"We edited the script and discovered that, when one skips some of the rhetoric, Hamlet becomes a gripping political and psychological thriller," she says. "I was interested in the political dimension, which suggests a society experiencing an abrupt change accompanied by fear, hypocrisy, distrust, and the possibility of revolt."

Zizka credits a trip last summer to Athens; her talks with young, politically engaged artists; "and walks through the ancient city literally covered in graffiti," as influencing her and set designer Matt Saunders' dusty staging, evoking a decaying city. "The isolationism of the ultrarich, and the theater of politics - in such a world, art and fiction are the only truths that can create empathy to combat the hatred that, like a virus, infects most characters in Hamlet."

Then there is Hamlet himself, the biggest reason Zizka wished to do it in the first place. "Hamlet is a remarkable play, and one that I have always wanted to direct, but I had to wait for an extraordinary actor, and it was not until I met Zainab that I knew it was time for our production," she says. "Zainab's particular abilities - her presence and charisma, her strength with language, her physicality - suggested Hamlet to me." She says that if Jah hadn't agreed to do it, there would have been no Hamlet this season.

Zizka first saw Jah up close in the Wilma's production of actress/playwright Danai Gurira's The Convert, a naturalistic take on colonial South African Christianity in the 1890s, directed by Michael John Garcés.

Jah played Prudence, a magnificent, tragic character whose level of transformation was remarkable. Jah has extraordinary physical and vocal control while projecting readiness and presence. "Not a moment she's onstage is false," says Zizka. "I believe Zainab can do anything onstage, which is why I asked her to take on the monumental task of Hamlet."

The fact that she is a woman is all but irrelevant to Zizka, for Jah is exceptional, plain and simple. "We don't need to conceptualize or make room for her gender in the production. She is acting the part of Hamlet."

Jah agrees. "I had not given any thought to playing Hamlet before, so I can't really say how I wanted to do the part," she says during a break in rehearsals. "I mean, I certainly, eventually, welcomed the challenge and wanted to find how I could bring my own perspective, my own voice to one of the most iconic characters in English literature."

She loves working with Zizka in a collaborative, exploratory environment. "She set it up so it allows us, the actors, to go very deep into finding the nuances, textures, and soul of not just the characters but ourselves, physically and emotionally, to really use our bodies as instruments."

Jah has done quite a bit of Shakespeare, most recently as one of the featured players in his tragic Antony and Cleopatra at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, as well as starring roles in American productions of King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.

But, she says, "Hamlet does not compare at all to any of the other Shakespeare plays I have done. It's Hamlet! Except perhaps it is at times a little surreal, as I did actually play Ophelia two years ago at California Shakespeare Theatre, so my scenes with the present Ophelia were at times unsettling. . . . A member of the company pointed out that I am one of few people to have ever played both Ophelia and Hamlet."

 


THEATER

Hamlet

Through April 19 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.

Tickets: $25.

Information: 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.