Los Angeles Theater Review: HAMLET (Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company at the Odyssey Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on September 17, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

THERE IS NOTHING EITHER GOOD OR BAD,
BUT CASTING MAKES IT SO

Can it really be twenty years now that I have admired Lisa Wolpe’s work? Time and again, the actress has impressed me with her ability to seamlessly inhabit male Shakespearean roles while bringing fresh significance to characters as disparate as Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of “Hamlet” - Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare CompanyRomeo, Iago and Shylock. Yet I’m not so sure her ability to bring invigorating life to these characters was the result of a woman playing traditional male parts. She’s just a damned fine actress — powerful, intelligent, incisive, cunning and classically trained. During her two-decade tenure as producing artistic director of Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company (which she also founded), she has also directed herself, which makes her successful acting all that much more of a stunning achievement.

Wolpe is also to be praised for proving that diversity in casting — whether by gender or color — will not, in and of itself, be detrimental to a production, and her leadership has paved the way for minority actors to dig their teeth into roles that would, not long ago, have been positively taboo for them to play.

Yet Wolpe’s current production of Hamlet at the Odyssey, with its all-women, diverse cast, feels worn and bland from the start with performances that range from successful to interesting to wooden to amateurish to anywhere in between. Wolpe and co-director Natsuko Ohama are so seemingly intent on this casting device that they fail to locate the soul of the show. Right from the start, with scenery that looks like a Castle Play Set for King Arthur dolls, the all-important appearance of the Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of “Hamlet” - Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Companyghost of Hamlet’s father occurs in a scene which is both rushed and oddly edited. Throughout the show, there is great blocking and stage combat, but the majority of relationships lack believability.

It’s not even close to being a horrible production, and may be a good introduction for those who need their Shakespeare trim and tidy and accessible, such as first-timers; but I found myself getting edgy and my mind wandered too often. With great relief, Wolpe amazingly inhabits Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark to the point that it is instantaneously forgotten that she is middle-aged and a she. Even with a bit of straining, she offers a clarity of interpretation that is satisfying to behold.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of “Hamlet” - Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare CompanyMany directors are now jumping on the bandwagon of minority casting, whether or not it sacrifices the show’s capacity to resonate. That lack of visionary direction is proving to be disadvantageous in the theater. From Blood Wedding at the Odyssey to the current Death of a Salesman at South Coast Rep to the equally current Cymbeline at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, diversity has replaced the casting of actors who are perfect for their role. It’s noticeable that OSF’s Cymbeline, with its deaf king, black princess, Latino suitor, et al, positively floundered while Bart DeLorenzo’s rendition at A Noise Within triumphed by casting actors to play multiple roles, highlighting the duality of their nature. What was once a remarkable tool for breathing new life into the theater has become gimmickry which may attract more diverse audiences and doesn’t hurt when applying for grant money, but theater cannot exist on diversity alone.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of “Hamlet” - Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare CompanyWhile there is no end in sight to diverse casting simply for the sake of diverse casting, I hear that with this production Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company is set to close – which is sad and heartening at the same time. I appreciate and honor Wolpe’s efforts and those of her contemporaries. Many barriers have been broken because of them, especially for women. Maybe the shuttering of LAWSC is a sign that it’s not as necessary as it once was. But there’s something rotten in the state of theater when politically correct casting replaces artistry. I look forward to the day when actors are cast for the content of their character, not their color, their gender, or their connections (but that’s another story).

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of “Hamlet” - Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Companyposter photo by Kevin Sprague
production photos by Enci

Hamlet
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company
Odyssey Theatre
scheduled to end on October 27, 2013
for tickets, call 310.477.2055
or visit Odyssey Theatre

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