Dane to be Different

Rachel Tiemann admits she's more the Ophelia type. Tiemann is tall, slender, long limbed, with wide brown eyes and a round face that, when she smiles, reveals two adorable dimples. Her hair is cropped short these days, because she's not playing the supporting role of the sad, mad girl who drowns in the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville production of Hamlet. She's got the lead.

"People are calling me Hamlet," she says, "and the character is beginning to affect my life: I can't decide; I wear black all the time; I mock other people."

No, she'd never thought of playing the prince before this opportunity came, but there was a rumor going around the performing-arts department last year that director W. Craven Mackie, already notorious for taking an experimental approach to the classics, was thinking about casting a woman as Hamlet.

The rumor proved true when auditions this spring were opened to both women and men. When Tiemann was called back for a second audition, she tried to influence the director with a more androgynous look, pulling her (then) long hair back and wearing pinstriped trousers.

According to Mackie, she didn't need the costume. In auditions, he says, "There was nobody even close."

If you're casting what many consider the greatest part in the English language, it makes sense to cast your best actor. If, through the accident of gender, that actor happens to be a woman, there is tradition to fall back on.

There were a number of "Hamlet ladies" in the 19th century, Mackie notes, the most famous being Sarah Bernhardt, playing the role in Paris with her wooden leg (perhaps tapping out the iambic pentameter) in 1899. The 20th century has seen a number of Hamlet women, with Sybil Thorndike playing the role before the war. Since the 1960s, any number of avant-garde companies, such as Mabou Mines, have gender-bent Shakespeare.

Besides, as anyone who has seen Shakespeare in Love knows, the gender issue was much simpler in Elizabethan times -- the actors were all male. So it's taken the slow-moving Western world about 400 years to do some minor reversals of that custom.

But, as Tiemann offers as understatement, "Casting a woman is different." But is it so incongruous as seeing "Hamlet played by 35-year-old burly guys," the very nonburly Tiemann asks rhetorically, referring to recent film versions with Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh, "with an 18-year-old Ophelia?" (Actually, Hollywood is full of 35-year-old burly guys with 18-year-old starlets, but that doesn't make it Shakespearean either.)

With a librarian for a mother, Tiemann was aware of Hamlet as early as grade school. She first read the play during her senior year of high school: "I loved it, loved it, loved it. I loved his alienation. You both want to shake him and be there for him. He has to make choices that he cannot make. Hamlet is one of the first real characters in a character-driven play. Spiritually, he asks the questions 'What are we? Where are we going?' I always saw Hamlet as a 22-year-old home from school. It makes sense to have a younger Hamlet."

Tiemann plays Hamlet as a student prince (and not a princess; Hamlet is a young man played by a young woman) who would rather be back at Wittenberg U. than dealing with the rotten world of dreary Denmark. She obviously has direct experience as a student ("I'm so far behind in two English classes!"), but she has had to receive some training in Hamlet's manlier acts. "I wasn't proficient with rapier and sword, and I must be, or against Laertes I'll get pummeled."

But then, most guys aren't proficient with rapier and sword these days. "I go to it as Hamlet the prince," Tiemann says. "If I play age or sexuality, it's too much. I do kiss Ophelia, but people shouldn't be thinking about lesbianism -- there's already too much going on. I find myself sitting with my legs open more often. I keep my back straighter. Actually, I like the testosterone trip I go on."

Nothing will be standard in this production of Hamlet. Mackie has done significant cutting, trying to get the running time down to two hours -- quite a feat, considering that Branagh's film version, which presented the full text, ran four hours. The play will begin with Hamlet's first soliloquy, "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt," rather than at the ramparts of Elsinore Castle with a nervous sentinel crying, "Who's there?"

Nor will Tiemann be playing the "melancholy Dane." She describes the prince as "a dark comedian. He's more mocking. If you have an injury, he'll keep poking. He can be a little snotty, self-centered. The world revolves around him. He's very sensitive, beyond any other character, but insensitive to others -- especially Ophelia. He doesn't take into account what's in her head."

In regards to the question of Hamlet's madness, whether it is purely feigned or partly real, Tiemann answers, "I don't think he's very mad, although he suffers from a condition of depression -- his father has died. I'm playing him very noble and sincere at the end. You could play Hamlet as very funny, which makes it better when he turns and becomes intense. Dr. Mackie has me playing with bones and skulls in the graveyard scene. If there's anything funny, we try to find it."

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