Shakespeare in the Parks presents all-female ‘Hamlet’ production

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Jessica McKenzie | Staff Writer

A scene from the Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ all-female production of “Hamlet.” The show will run for free every Saturday and Sunday until Sept. 26 across Pittsburgh’s parks.

By Jessica McKenzie, Staff Writer

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks reimagined the classic play “Hamlet” into an all-female production — one that challenges its company to speak “Pittsburghese” while embodying classic characters of the Elizabethan Era.

PSIP’s 17th season of free shows will run through Sept. 26. Showings are on either Friday evenings or Saturday and Sunday afternoons across Pittsburgh’s parks. The company performed near Frick Park’s Blue Slide Playground on Beechwood Boulevard and Nicholson Street this weekend.

Joanna Getting, who plays the roles of Polonius, Gravedigger and Barnardo, said she’s most excited to see the audience’s reaction when the characters speak in a Pittsburgh dialect. Getting said the company had to use a Pittsburgh accent at all times — even with simple words like “water” and “n’at.”

“The dialect has been super challenging,” Getting said. “It’s been fun to figure out how a native Pittsburgher would speak in very old school English and how they would use Shakespeare’s words.”

Getting started performing in elementary school and earned a theater arts degree from Pitt. A member of PSIP since 2006, Getting said she jumped on the opportunity to be a part of “Hamlet” because artistic director Jennifer Tober decided to make it the company’s second all-female production since “Julius Caesar” in September 2019.

“Back in Shakespeare’s day, women were often not even allowed to perform at all — and when they were, they could be the queen, the wife, the maid or the wench, but they can’t be the prince or the king,” Getting said. “The fact that women of color are taking on the lead roles is super inspiring and empowering, a dynamic unlike anything most audiences will ever get to see.”

Melissa Franklin and Angela Hsu — both women of color — share the roles of Ophelia and Hamlet and switch characters during the second half of the play. KJ Gilmer, the play’s director, said she made this choice so that women of color can experience playing two main characters that are polar opposites of each other.

“Everyone has preconceived notions, expectations and theories about this play — I’m up against almost hundreds of years of research and scholars who see this play done a certain way,” Gilmer said. “It’s about rising to the challenge and showing the play through my eyes, but also seeing it through the perspective of someone who isn’t that familiar with ‘Hamlet.’”

Gilmer is a costume design lecturer at Pitt. She directs and designs costumes for Pitt as well as other theater companies and universities. “Hamlet” is her first professional production — and the first production where she didn’t make the costumes. She said she admires Shakespeare’s work because the themes still apply to the world today.

“The life experiences of the characters are still relevant to situations of today, and the political climate that we are experiencing now is a similar situation to what was happening in England at the time,” Gilmer said. “This play was written as a propaganda piece to educate people back then — and I think we can still learn from it today.”

During Sunday’s performance in Frick Park, the cast used props such as small tables, blocks and cubes to represent different areas of Hamlet’s kingdom. Gilmer said she was excited to use the nature of Pittsburgh’s parks as a backdrop.

“[The cast members] do move around but they stay in the same environment — we use the props to move the story forward and to move us through time and space,” Gilmer said. “We’re not fighting against nature for the sake of this production, we’re embracing it.”

According to Getting, embracing nature is only one aspect of what made the production successful, given challenges caused by COVID-19 restrictions. She said the cast had to find creative ways to move around and perform fight scenes while social distancing. 

“During rehearsals, I felt as though I could try anything — [the other performers] would not judge me for making an odd choice and seeing if that works,” Getting said. “So that’s been wonderful to have such accepting and supportive people to work with.”

During their performance, the cast still performs fight scenes, but they do so without ever touching each other. According to the production’s fight choreographer, Tonya Lynn, the task of choreographing these scenes was most challenging because of the use of weaponry in “Hamlet.”

“This production updates the look of the weaponry and instead of swords uses knives, which have a much closer and more intimate fight distance,” Lynn said. “There are no hidden ‘stage combat tricks’ this time around, because all the movements are in full view of the audience and performed without physical contact between the actors.”

PSIP’s “Hamlet” marks Lynn’s eighth time as a fight choreographer for the play and 64th time working on a Shakespeare production. Lynn studied at Pitt Theatre’s graduate program. She served as a fight choreographer on 11 mainstage and student lab theater productions for Pitt Stages.

Lynn said her love for Shakespeare’s work is the reason she is so passionate about theater. She said she is thrilled to experience PSIP’s fresh take on the play and that being a part of PSIP’s inclusive approach to “Hamlet” is inspiring.

“I find it refreshing to see these beloved characters be interpreted in a public setting by actors who historically would not have had access to these roles,” Lynn said. “The depth of character and nuance that can be unearthed by introducing fresh perspectives to a classical text — it’s an important part of what helps keep theater vibrant and relevant.”

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