BY CARY GINELL
The idea of a woman playing the lead in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not a new one. The first female Hamlet, Elizabeth Powell, performed the role at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1796 and by 1820, the first American “Hamlette,” Sarah Bartley, played it at the Park Theatre in New York.
Still, the concept of a female Hamlet remains a novel one, which was just the impetus director Jeff Wallach needed to double cast high school juniors Molly Ann Cunningham and Talia Asseraf in Curtain Call Youth Theatre’s production of the classic play. The show opens tonight at the Newbury Park Adventist Auditorium and plays through December 4. We visited with Molly and Talia recently and talked about their portrayals of the Bard’s historic, tragic character.
VCOS: First, tell me your ages and where you go to school.
TALIA : I’m sixteen and I go to Calabasas High School.
MOLLY: I go to the High School at Moorpark College and I’m seventeen.
VCOS: Tell me what kinds of roles you’ve played up until now.
MOLLY: I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. I played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lennox in The Scottish Play. I’ve been doing theater since I was around seven. I’ve had some prominent roles but this is really my biggest one so far.
TALIA: I was Helena in the same production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where she was Titania and I recently played Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. I’ve done a lot of other theater as well, musicals as well as plays, but this is also my biggest role so far.
VCOS: What did you think when you found out that this was going to be an all-female version of Hamlet?
MOLLY: I was really, really excited. I’ve done a lot of shows with Jeff Wallach before and he did a female version of The Scottish Play, which was the first one I did with him, so I knew that I really liked it. I like how it changes some of the meanings behind the words and the ways characters relate to each other. It just makes it really, really interesting.
TALIA: Whenever I read Shakespeare and learned about him and started watching the plays, I would get really enthusiastic about it, and I remember watching Hamlet with Sir Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson and just thinking, wow, this would be such a cool role, but I’m not a man so I could never do it. There would always be some guy who would come in play the role, so it was really special to be able to be in an all-female cast. It’s always been one of my dream roles because of the depth and the strong, interesting character Hamlet is to the play. So when Curtain Call decided to do that, it was such a gift for me.
VCOS: Was the play altered at all in order for you to play the part?
MOLLY: It’s exactly the same. The only thing they’ve done is change the pronouns to “they” across the board, so that it’s neither female nor male. It’s also slightly abridged, just to make the play shorter.
VCOS: Were you surprised as to how well it works to change the gender of the characters?
TALIA: I don’t think we were surprised. I think a really big part of theater is that ability to transcend through time, and the fact that Shakespeare’s plays have been kept alive for so long throughout history has been so amazing. And to widen the audience a little bit more and make it more modern, because it was not just men who deal with mental anguish and suffering. I actually think it brings more people in.
MOLLY: I agree. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise to me, either. I think it works really well. I think that it’s very interesting to subvert the tropes of what Shakespeare was doing and say, OK, yes, but what if this is a girl who says it? How does it change how things are in reality. For example, one of my dream roles is Iago in Othello, which is also a traditionally male role. I think if you put a female into that role, it’s different but it still works. That’s what’s super-cool about this production.
VCOS: Are there any obvious things that change the story arc when you have Hamlet played by a female?
MOLLY: There are certain things that change, maybe in how we say the words. Obviously, there is a difference in how males and females talk, but honestly, not much has changed. With the fighting between Hamlet and Laertes, we made a conscious decision to keep it very rough and real, not stylized, typically female fighting.
VCOS: What is “typically female fighting”?
MOLLY: Well, if you look at popular culture, usually females aren’t good at fighting or the woman is kind of like the “black widow” and is very stylized, almost sexy fighting.
VCOS: Like scratching and clawing?
MOLLY: Right. We didn’t want that. We wanted it to be dirty fighting, street fighting, with punching, things that girls don’t typically get to do.
TALIA: I remember when we were talking about how to do the fights, we would say, “Let’s not make it a girly fight, let’s just make it a fight” and that’s one of the things that you asked about – what’s different about the play. I think the reason why it works so well is that Shakespeare wrote these plays for people to relate to, and women are people, too, and they can feel all of those emotions, so I don’t feel like we had to do anything different to maneuver around the work. I think we did the exact same amount of work that Mel Gibson did or any of the other men who’ve played Hamlet. It’s just people feeling the same things and going through their own emotional times.
MOLLY: The only real thing that could come up was Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, which was changed from a straight relationship to a gay relationship. That was the only real concrete difference.
VCOS: Do you think there were any gay characters in Shakespeare’s plays?
MOLLY: I don’t know, honestly. I think that everything Shakespeare does is very open to interpretation. I am not straight, I’m bisexual, and I can look at Shakespeare’s plays and see myself as certain characters, but that isn’t to say that a straight person couldn’t look at the same play and see themselves as that same character in a different way. And I think that’s what’s so good about Shakespeare’s plays – they are so universal in that you can read them and relate to pretty much every character, whether it’s someone who you dislike or if it is an extension of yourself.
VCOS: Were you able to find any all-female versions on YouTube or anywhere to watch and maybe pick up some pointers on how they approached this?
MOLLY: We didn’t find any, although we know it’s not a new idea to swap genders in shows. Personally, I didn’t watch anything before my audition because I didn’t want to be influenced by anything, but after the audition I did look and still couldn’t find anything.
TALIA: I didn’t want to be influenced either. I think I know Molly’s acting style and she knows mine and we have our own ideas about things. I’ve definitely watched other productions of the show, but that would be so special if I could see an all-female one.
VCOS: Do you watch each other when you perform?
TALIA: Oh yeah, when I’m Hamlet, she’s Horatio and when I’m Horatio, she’s Hamlet. We’re actually close friends; we’ve known each other for about a year, so it’s cool to be able to interact with a close friend on stage.
VCOS: Do you compare notes on how you approach your roles or different scenes?
MOLLY: Sometimes we will ask for clarification, like “I don’t know why we are saying this line, can you help me?” We both know the different ways to come at it, like I know how Talia sees Hamlet and Talia knows how I see Hamlet, and we’re very different in that regard. If you come to see us on two different nights, it’s almost like a different show.
VCOS: How will this experience help you in future shows that you might do?
MOLLY: I think it’s that we won’t discount any role. Before I started doing Curtain Call shows and got the opportunity to play a few traditionally male characters, I would look at Shakespeare and say, OK, I love this monolog, but I can’t do it, I have to play this girl character. Now, I can look at it and say, this is the best character in the show and I want to play this character. We live in a world where amazing art is everywhere and people want to try new things and come at them from new angles to introduce them to a wider audience, and I think there will definitely be these kinds of opportunities in the future. So the biggest lesson I learned was not to discount that. Just go for what you want.
TALIA: I definitely agree with that. It just really goes to show how our generation is taking in different aspects, like feminism. Before, I would look at Hamlet and say, “I can’t play that part because he’s a man.” But here I am, about to play Hamlet and open up a show this week. In life, it will help me be more confident and unrestricted by convention. I won’t have to feel restricted in society, creatively or otherwise, like “What if that choice is too big a stretch?” or “This would only be funny if a man played it.” I feel that this really shows that girls can do it too!
VCOS: And you can take this attitude into auditions where you can say to someone, “I’ve played Hamlet, I can do this, too.”
VCOS: What has Jeff Wallach taught you in his direction that is especially valuable?
MOLLY: Jeff is one of the most amazing directors I’ve ever worked with. Whether you’re playing a big role or a small role, he sits down with you and talks about where you’re coming from with your character. He’ll ask you, “How do you see this character?” “What traits does this character have?” “What is this character’s family life like?” He really makes you get into the mind of the character where you’re not just acting it, you’re being that character. And he’s taught me to look at things that way. What are you feeling in the scene? Not what do the lines say, but what are you feeling? I love the way he looks at things and I love that he gives me the opportunity to play things that I would not have the opportunity to play somewhere else. And I love the way he makes me think when I’m acting. He makes me get inside the character. It’s not pretending, it’s doing.
TALIA: I had the honor of being his stage manager during this summer’s production of Jekyll and Hyde and I remember watching the character discussions with the cast and I wrote pages and pages and pages of stuff that he was talking about, what it means to be an actor, what you need to do, and the work it takes, and I go through these notes whenever I go to an audition. I audition for movies and TV shows and other plays and I often look at them and remind myself of these things. The thing about Jeff is that a lot of people think that acting is really easy and that being an actor is not like being a doctor or a lawyer where you’re saving the world. It’s so much more. It’s something that has transcended through time. Acting is a profession that has been around forever and Jeff reminds us how important it is to be a part of theater.
MOLLY: You’re telling a story and the story exists for a reason. And don’t discount a story because whatever character you’re playing, you’re there to tell a story and it will have an impact on someone in the audience.
VCOS: What are your future plans after high school?
MOLLY: I’m looking at colleges right now. I’m finishing my A.A. at Moorpark and then will transfer to a four-year college. I’m definitely looking at theater programs. I love theater. It’s what I can see myself doing for the rest of my life. So I’m looking at theater programs and trying to get more involved. I’m getting involved in productions at Moorpark College; I’m taking classes there.
TALIA: I’ve been in a couple of movies and have a couple more coming up where I’ll be flying around the country shooting them so I’m excited about that. I’ve always looked at acting as a career. There was brief moment where I said, “I’ll be a rock star!” but that’s not for me, I’m not much of a singer. But I’ve been acting since I was nine and I think that ever since I saw my first play, I’ve thought, “I can do this” and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m looking at colleges right now in New York and England – the best theaters where you can go, but I’m a little torn right now between staying in theater or going further into film and TV, but either one will bring me happiness.
VCOS: Well, you’ve both been very articulate and thoughtful and I wish you the best of luck.
Hamlet opens tonight, November 30, at the Newbury Park Adventist Academy. For dates, showtimes, and directions to the theater, see the VC On Stage Calendar.