To some ways of thinking, the title role in Hamlet is a natural part for female performers. Unlike the other male characters in Shakespeare's tragedy, who are all too ready to kill or banish or compromise their loved ones the moment the thought crosses their minds, Hamlet thinks before he acts. The Prince of Denmark is a university student, much more at home in the world of words and thoughts and debates than in the one in which he finds himself: a revenge plot.
Hamlet's father has died, and his mother Gertrude has married his uncle Claudius, isolating Hamlet in what Claudius calls "unmanly grief." Literature historically leaves mourning to women -- Hamlet's closest predecessors might be Penelope and Electra. Hamlet revels in his grief, using it as a weapon, a comfort, yet still insisting that what he shows the world is "but the trappings and the suits of woe." But when he finds out that Claudius killed his father and that he must avenge his father's death, his grief proves ill suited to spur him to kill.
Many actresses have taken on the Dane, including legendary Shakespeareans Sarah Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt. Director Bill Peters, in a minimalist San Francisco State production, is now taking the femininity up a notch by casting actresses in all the roles. That doesn't mean that the characters become female. Nor does it mean a lot of fake beards and artificially deep voices -- rather, it's a lot of unflattering menswear. Actually, it's easy to forget that Peters' performers are women. Once in a while, Hamlet (Alix Cuadra) and his confidante Horatio (Maia Knibb) giggle like schoolgirls, or Claudius (Kayla Lauzier) and Gertrude (Celeste Conowitch) whisper sweet nothings to and pet one another, calling attention to gender much in the way that Shakespeare's all-male troupe did. Other than that, the performers might as well be men.
It seems there's no larger purpose to the cross-gender casting. Not that there has to be. Women ought to be able to interpret any role in whatever way they choose without the imperative to be subversive or "feminist." The trouble with Peters' production is that "just because" seems to be the answer to every artistic question.
Actresses give line readings with calculatedly offbeat inflections but no emotional motivation. A red cross that looks much like the dagger the ghost gives Hamlet is made to accompany every religion-invoking scene even though the dagger never kills anyone and the characters' religiosity isn't otherwise emphasized. The Player (Mia Jacqueline Hunt), whose performance of a play helps expose Claudius' guilt, is made to be blind -- a choice that promises justification but provides none. And much singing is added (the musical direction is by Casey Robbins), presumably to show off pretty voices, but it ultimately does little more than further draw out already excruciating scenes.
A few of Peters' choices transcend the others. Lighting the ghost scene only with flashlights allows the ghost (Julie James) to suddenly appear in a way that is surely as spooky as it was for Shakespeare's audiences. And having the gravedigger sling worms into the audience allows for a much-needed bit of clowning, also by Hunt.
Yet on the whole, it's one problem that seals this production's failure, and it's the problem that's hardest to fix: Making a decision about, and then living fully in, a character's emotion. No unusual syllabic emphasis on "To be or not to be" can paper over that.
Hamlet continues through April 28 at the Studio Theatre, Creative Arts Building, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway (at 19th Ave.), S.F. Admission is $5-$10.