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New Ensemble Theater Group puts new spin on Shakespeare's Hamlet
Heather Parish wasn’t looking to cast Hamlet as a woman’s role.
She wasn’t looking to not do that either, people just auditioned and the actor who had the most experience, the one with the most interesting interpretation of the character happened to be a woman — Brooke Aiello.
“We wanted to do a classic and do it in a way that is unfamiliar,” says Parish, a director and founding member of the New Ensemble Theater Group, whose “Hamlet” opens at the Broken Leg Stage, April 13.
It’s a bit of a stretch for the company, which is known for more contemporary works. Of the eight productions it has done, most were scripts that were less than 10 years old. Its next production, “Baptized to the Bone,” was written in 2009.
Most were also Fresno premieres by lesser known authors.
While that is an attraction for some, “it’s a tight-rope walk,” Parish says. “We put a lot of thought in what we do.”
At the core of that is the literary merit of the material. “The focus is on the acting and the languages,” Parish says.
So doing Shakespeare — know for the depth of richness of his language — makes sense.
Of course, this is not Branagh’s “Hamlet.”
First, it’s a small cast — just 11 actors. It’s actually the ensemble's largest cast to date, but it’s still small in the Shakespearean world. The play is also being staged it in a tiny black-box of a space with way less than 100 seats — not the most likely venue for a play that’s traditionally done in large, outdoor theaters. So, the ensemble's Hamlet is a smaller, tighter play.
That is one of the great things about Shakespeare, especially "Hamlet," Parish says. There is some wiggle room.
“It’s a big play, but it’s also a family drama.”
You can stage it as a sweeping, epic story — the play has been know to run over four hours — or keep it more focused. This version of "Hamlet" runs about 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Now, having Hamlet as a woman did present some logistical issues. For instance — because it’s what Parish gets asked most often — what to do with Ophelia?
Parish kept her a woman.
“It’s a lesbian relationship. We’re allowed to do that in our society.”
In our society, yes. In Elizabethan society? Not so much. So, they group also had to figure out how to set the play in a world that would make sense for the characters. It ends up being a slightly futuristic place, where women wield the same — or more— power than men. It’s a dystopian world, Parish says. Not that a world where woman have all the power would be dystopian, but for staging “Hamlet,” it works. It also works with the underground, cavernous feeling of the Broken Leg space.
The whole thing is a shift in the way people tend to think about Hamlet —the character and the play, Parish says. That makes it both a good entry point for those who’ve never seen the play, and a way for those who feel they know the play inside and out to find in it something new.
And that’s what the New Ensemble Theater Group should be known for, Parish says.
“That's what we do. Something new.”