In the lifetime of William Shakespeare, female roles in his plays were portrayed by men. Though that practice has long since ended, a new production with performances at the University of Wyoming is designed to turn the antiquated practice on its head.
“Women Playing Hamlet,” a play written and co-directed by UW’s playwright-in-residence William Missouri Downs, debuted Thursday evening with a performance at the Buchanan Center for the Performing Arts Thrust Theatre. Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday and Thursday-Dec. 10. Tickets are $14 for the general public, $11 for senior citizens and $7 for students.
An exclusively female cast plays roles of both genders in the performance. The protagonist, Jessica, is an actress playing Hamlet in a New York production who faces the complexities of being a female actor in the modern age. The story is such that anyone, whether familiar with the works of Shakespeare or not, can relate, Downs said.
“The play has been written so if you’ve never read ‘Hamlet’ or seen it, the play still makes total sense,” Downs said. “It’s not one of these ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ plays. It’s a comedy about a woman who’s been cast as Hamlet and her desperate attempts to understand who she is.”
Downs said he doesn’t remember a particular moment when he knew he wanted to write a play about actors in a “Hamlet” production with an all-female cast. But more than 500 women have played the Hamlet character through the last three centuries, and Downs said the topic inspired him to write an explorative comedy.
“It’s a funny play about psychiatrists, acting coaches, bartenders and opinionated professors that all come and try to enlighten her,” he said. “If anyone has ever asked, ‘Who am I?’ they would enjoy this play.”
Downs, a professor of playwriting and screenwriting at UW and freelance writer, also wrote and directed plays such as “Angry Psycho Princesses” and “The Exit Interview.” His works frequently explore serious social and interpersonal topics through a comedic lens — something Downs said he enjoys. For “Women Playing Hamlet,” he said he wanted to examine the contrasts he sometimes observes in men and women.
“A lot of the men I meet are black-and-white thinkers, and a lot of the women I meet are variable thinkers, and I really wanted to write about that difference,” Downs said. “Hamlet is a variable thinker — he considers so many variables and possibilities in the play. In a normal Batman movie, there’s good against evil. And in ‘Hamlet,’ we have a thoughtful protagonist who sets out against a sea of troubles and tries to understand himself and come to a conclusion of what action he should take. And that’s true of the woman who’s been cast as Hamlet.”
“Women Playing Hamlet” is co-directed by UW senior Kathryn Demith. Impressed after seeing a student-written play she directed, Downs said he took the passenger seat as Demith did most of the directing for the play.
“(Kathryn) is a wonderfully talented student,” he said. “There was a student-written play she directed last year, and when I saw it, I thought, ‘This is a 22-year-old student who did this outstanding job directing a play.’ She has a natural talent.”
Many of Downs’ works are internationally reproduced and renowned, and ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ is already the winner of a Rolling Premiere from the National New Play Network — the country’s alliance of nonprofit professional theaters dedicated to the development, production, and continued life of new plays.