“To be or not to be” is easily the most known phrase from any play, spoken by arguably the most complicated character ever conceived — Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince of Denmark who must avenge his father’s murder by his own uncle.
Taking on a production of “Hamlet” is a weighty proposition for any theater company, but this time around Idaho Shakespeare Festival Producing-Artistic Director Charlie Fee took a very different direction in his thinking — not only about the play, but in how his theater company operates.
He double-cast the title role with a woman, Laura Welsh Berg, and a man, Jonathan Dyrud (pronounced Dye-rood), who alternate performances throughout the run that ends Sunday, June 25. It’s an unusual move that’s paying off in surprising ways, Fee says.
“It was somewhat selfish,” Fee says. “We don’t do the play very often. I wanted to work with more than one actor, and everybody wants to play it, and you can cast anyone in the role. To have a man and a woman play it offers us a really broad and palpable difference in the experience for the audience and for the company.”
So Fee asked his core company members to do something he rarely does — to audition for the role with something from the play.
“Many in the company did, and they were all great,” Fee says. “They were all interesting, and they all taught me something about the text.”
In the end, it became the two actors with the greatest contrast who ended up in the role. Something about Dyrud’s tense approach and Berg’s freshness won the day, and both found themselves diving into a role that they never thought they’d get to play.
Getting the gig
At the onset, Berg — a 12-year veteran of the company — was the least likely candidate. It’s not that women haven’t played Hamlet before, it’s just not that common. When Fee asked Berg to audition for Hamlet, she was stunned.
“It’s now a very famous story,” she says, laughing. “I almost spit oatmeal all over him. I had suggested casting me as Horatio, which I thought would be good. I never imagined he wanted me as Hamlet.”
Berg auditioned with, “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” and the scene with Ophelia (Erin Partin). Fee wanted to see how the dynamic with Partin would work on stage.
“She (Berg) was fantastic, and it was so different, for the most obvious reasons. She doesn’t know the role well because it’s not a role that women expect to play, so there is a freshness to it in the fact that she is just thinking about it,” Fee says. “She didn’t have any weight on her shoulders about it.”
Dyrud, who joined the company in 2015, auditioned with, “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,” a monologue he’s been working on for a few years. He was equally dynamic in the part, and the lanky 6-foot-2 redhead’s contrast with the 5-foot-6 Berg offered a broad diversity of possibility.
“The two had to agree to take this on together,” Fee says. “This takes a lot of generosity and a willingness to not only share, but to work with the other actor on it.”
They rehearsed the scenes — except for soliloquies and scenes with Ophelia and Gertrude — side by side. So the staging of many of the scenes is the same, except in instances when the difference in the actor’s height come into play. There were moments where Berg could get lost in the mix or Dyrud could overwhelm the scene. But that dual rehearsal process led to a deeper exploration of the play, which is what Fee was after.
“The room was alive in the way we questioned the text,” Fee says. “You would work a scene and suss out something. Then you do it with the other actor, and you’d hear different things. In a normal rehearsal, with just one actor you’d find your way into a scene and then you’d move on. This was much more engaging for everyone.”
Fee also has worked to build a tight, close-knit repertory company of actors, who return for multiple seasons. Those relationships built over time lead to a deep level of trust.
Having two actors playing the same role and working on the same scenes led to an interesting kind of collaboration between Dyrud and Berg.
“This is my fifth time working with Laura, and through that work we’ve forged a really great relationship,” Dyrud says. “We had many, many chats about the timeline of the play, the major events of the story, and sometimes the different tactics Hamlet employs and to what effect. It’s been incredibly collaborative, but the way we play specific moments is completely individual.”
“I also think that listening to each other’s scenes over a period of months creates a sometimes subconscious influence,” Berg says. “Not things that are conscious decisions, but a phrasing choice will sneak in, and I will initially be like, ‘Where did that come from?’ Only to realize the next night it’s how I have been hearing Jon say it. I suspect I will never fully fathom the influence he has had over my Hamlet.”
Kathleen Pirkl Tague stepped into the role of Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and one of the pivotal parts for the Boise production. There’s a lot that’s the same in their scenes in terms of storytelling, she says. The events — moments that contribute to the story — are almost identical, but there is also something very different.
“I thought I was going to be playing my Gertrude, but then I started to make choices with Laura and thought I could do them again with the tall red-haired guy, but no,” Pirkl Tague says. “He made different choices, so I’m really playing two Gertrudes. But they’re both very present actors, very playful and intelligent, and emotionally connected. I feel very lucky.”
The whole experience has been good for the company, Fee says. It opens up these huge roles for deeper exploration, and it protects the performances because ISF doesn’t have a large enough company to allow for a real understudy system. So if someone is sick or injured, audiences experience someone holding a script on stage.
“I’m beginning to realize that it’s healthy for the company to explore more doubling within the shows from the beginning,” he says.
Berg isn’t playing Hamlet as if he were a woman. There’s no princess of Denmark. But there is something you just can’t get away from in the playing of it that isn’t connected to the fact that she’s a woman.
“It’s an interesting time to be doing this play this way because of the conversation we’re having culturally about identity and what gender has to do with it,” Pirkl Tague says.
“They’re very different creatures,” she says. “In the emotionally intense scenes, Jon is more intimidating because of his size and strength. He could take me out. With Laura I might have a fighting chance, but it would be a struggle. There’s something on an animal level between male and female, and female and female. It’s just instinctual, the physical way we treat each other on stage.”
What makes it different? It’s about how we walk through the world and get what we want, how we seek justice and try to do the right thing — it’s all colored by your personal experience and that can’t be done without gender being a factor, Berg says.
“However, hopefully it’s a fleeting thing and after the first 10 minutes you’re not thinking about the fact that I’m a woman,” Berg says. “I’m not a man or a woman. I’m just Hamlet.”
Who is this guy?
“(Hamlet) is so mercurial,” Fee says. “That’s the great thing about this play — who is this guy, what is his mystery? Every time you see him, he changes in front of your eyes. From moment to moment, he’s different.”
That quality of the character is what keeps “Hamlet” relevant for any era, contemporary at every moment.
Both Berg and Dyrud take a similar path through the play to create Hamlet’s journey. For both, he is a stranger in a strange land — only it happens to be his hometown of Elsinore.
“When he gets there he’s aimless,” Dyrud says. “He’s not knowing what to do. He has idle hands, and that’s not good for someone like Hamlet.”
Then a ghost appears and tells him to kill his uncle.
“Then it’s about how do I justify doing this?” Dyrud says. “For me that’s his trajectory through the play — how do I do this, and how do I justify it? He’s worried about his soul, his mother’s soul — and mostly about Claudius’ soul because he doesn’t want him to go to heaven when his own father is in purgatory. How unjust would that be?”
Berg’s take is similar, but she focuses on Hamlet’s spiritual crisis. Hamlet studied in Wittenberg, a city that was primarily Lutheran.
“All the things he thinks are true get turned upside down in the first three scenes. Not just the family dynamics, but his whole world,” Berg says. “Does purgatory even exist? Lutherans don’t believe in purgatory, so your dad shows up being tormented in purgatory and your whole world falls away beneath your feet.”
So he puts his “antic disposition on,” but feigning madness is its own kind of madness, especially where love is concerned. The pivotal scene with Ophelia is “incredibly difficult and fascinating,” Berg says.
There are many questions the actors must answer for themselves: When do you find out that you’re being watched? How much of “to be or not to be” does Ophelia hear? Why is her father there watching?
“So much about that scene exists by what you create in the room and how you answer those questions for yourself,” Berg says. “For me, there’s an ebb and flow, and it changes slightly every night.”
7 p.m. Sunday, June 11, 18 and 25; 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, June 14-23, and Saturday, June 24; ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. $27-$75 general, $13 children 6-17 on family night, $20 students with valid ID any night. 336-9221, IdahoShakespeare.org.