Central Iowa has seen a mixture of both traditional Shakespeare presentations and innovative productions in the past few years. ISU Theatre will be debuting their version of The Tempest later in April, and RTI will do Taming of the Shrew as their annual Salisbury House Shakespeare on the Lawn show this summer. Simpson's The Comedy of Errors transplanted their show to the vaudeville era, while Story Theatre Company in Ames did a version of As You Like It with music from Johnny Cash and the pop song Breakfast at Tiffany's. And Des Moines Young Artists' Theatre played around a bit with their own presentation of Romeo & Juliet last fall, with some characters played by actors of the opposite gender.
The point is, while the adaptability of Shakespeare's works is undeniable, not everyone readily accepts all of the possibilities created by such situations. In Women Playing Hamlet, lead character Jessica (played by Susan Irish) is cast as Hamlet. And it seems everyone else in her life has an opinion on how (or even if) she should play the legendary part. Fortunately, Irish is well-versed in the works of Shakespeare, and can bring her own knowledge and experience to Jessica's trials.
"I studied theatre in college and had a couple of brilliant, thorough professors who were not only specialists in Shakespeare but could see that I was especially interested too," says Susan. "They fostered that interest and fanned the flames of my fandom, so to speak. That was when I truly fell in love, but even then, I don't think I really understood it."
"A director I worked with could see that I was ready for something more, so he suggested a training program he was familiar with at Shakespeare and Company, a professional theatre in Lenox, MA. Shakespeare and Company is home to an intensive Shakespeare Performance Training Program."
"I worked for the company in exchange for admission to two of their training programs. We spent upwards of 12 hours a day immersing ourselves in Shakespearean text, Elizabethan World View, and culture, voice, and movement classes. We ate, slept, and drank Shakespeare. It was glorious."
"There is much less daily Shakespeare in my life now, but the passion for it never goes away, and he manages to pop into my life at the most opportune moments."
Cue this production of Women Playing Shakespeare. While the character of Jessica mulls over whether "to be or not to be" a non-traditional Hamlet, Susan's fellow actresses have a bit of a different challenge on their hands. The show has an all female cast of four, but everyone other than Susan is playing multiple parts in the show as the various people Jessica encounters along the way to opening night. Susan has nothing but respect (and even a bit of amazement) for the job(s) they're all doing.
"Those women have all the hard work. I just play the one role. They're handling multiple costume changes, wigs, hair, makeup. They change ages and genders in seconds. They're handling multiple accents, social classes. It's bonkers." And as of this interview, it wasn't even tech week yet....
"I'll make sure they are well-nourished and well-hydrated. The talent, drive, and commitment these women are showing in rehearsals is inspiring. I just do my best to keep up and hold on for the ride."
"These women are generous scene partners and a joy to play with. Those days we can surprise each other and bring in new elements are exciting and fun."
Overall, this production sounds like loads of fun. And yet, as discussed earlier in this article, some people will still have a preconceived notion of what anything involving Shakespeare will be... and they're against the idea. Maybe it's the language, or the settings, or who knows what else. Susan is very clear that this production is exactly why you should come.
"I would say that this show is written specifically for you. No matter your experience or exposure to Shakespeare thus far in your life, this play has something for you. It pokes fun at Shakespeare, and rolls its eyes at some of the pretension and aloofness that comes along with many Shakespeare enthusiasts, but pays enough homage and shows enough love for the Bard that those that love and those that hate can come together and enjoy all at once."
"I never tell anyone not to be afraid of Shakespeare. I get that it's intimidating, and for me, someone who's spent so much time studying it, to say 'there's nothing to be afraid of' is like someone telling me not to be afraid of Russian Literature. I couldn't tell you the first thing about Dostoevsky. I'm afraid of it. But, if you're afraid of Shakespeare, a play like Women Playing Hamlet is a possible doorway to the world that doesn't feel like it's too much too soon."
Like Susan said, Shakespeare has a way of dropping into her life at the most opportune moments. She's been involved behind the scenes (directing CAP-Altoona's production last summer of The Tempest), but Women Playing Hamlet has brought her back to the spotlight again, albeit in a more considered way.
"This show has certainly re-ignited my love for the stage. I'd love to be on stage more, but the time commitment means that I have to be choosy in what I audition for. I'm at a place right now where I'm not really able to commit to directing or producing, but my heart really is onstage at the moment, so I can't rule out more auditions in the future."
Other parts of life are important as well. Her wife, her rambunctious kittens, and a love for gardening and biking keep her quite busy. But there's a slightly different creative spark happening too....
"All the new 'me time' has served to rekindle my desire to write. It's a hobby I've always enjoyed but never really gave any real time or effort to. I've been doing a little writing and am hoping to keep growing that little flame as I am able. What am I writing? Short stories, scenes, dialogue, journals, whatever inspires me. Nothing I'm willing to share yet, but it's a start."
"I know, I know, every coffee shop upstart with a laptop thinks they have a novel inside them, but I'm hoping someday it's true."
Hey, even Shakespeare had to start somewhere. I hear he turned out pretty good....
Women Playing Hamlet opens on Friday March 31, and runs on Fridays and Saturdays for three weekends. Presented by Tallgrass Theatre Company, shows are at the Rex Mathis Theatre at Stilwell Jr. High in West Des Moines. Tickets on the Tallgrass website and at the door (if still available).