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Role in Reverse

Humbled but Passionate About the Challenge, She'll Be Hamlet


"What a piece of work is a man," marvels Hamlet in one of the most famous speeches from one of the world's most famous plays.

But what piece of work is "Hamlet" if Hamlet is not a man?

That is the question in the Grove Theater Center "Hamlet" that begins previews this week. Jane Macfie, a small, fortyish actress with a Hamlet obsession that goes back to her girlhood, has the burden of persuading skeptics that "Hamlet" makes sense and keeps its tragic sublimity when the Prince of Denmark is played as a princess.

"Making Hamlet female changes very little, but changes everything," says Kevin Cochran, the Grove artistic director who is staging the play. It opens at the Festival Amphitheater in Garden Grove, then moves next month to the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.

Little needs to be changed in the language and action of the play, Cochran said as he and Macfie sat in a dressing room at a table strewn with 10 editions of "Hamlet," not counting the large, hard-covered folders containing their working scripts.

The climactic "Good night, sweet Prince" has turned into "Good night, sweet Hamlet," Cochran said, but other changes in the language have been minimal--just some tweaking of pronouns and turning of "my lords" into "my lieges."

This will be a significantly pared-down "Hamlet," but Cochran said the cuts were not made to skirt problems posed by the gender shift. The aim was to turn a play that can run longer than four hours into a brisk, accessible two-hour evening.

There is a long tradition of cross-gender Hamlets. Some of the theater's great divas have played the part, including Sarah Siddons in the late 18th century, Charlotte Cushman in the mid-19th, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse a century or so ago, and a septuagenarian Dame Judith Anderson in the 1970s. Nevertheless, when Joseph Papp cast Diane Venora as the Dane in New York in 1982, it was still considered a radical, daring, perhaps gimmicky, move. And all of those actresses played Hamlet as a prince.

The Grove "Hamlet" did not grow out of a pet theory about the hero's oft-remarked sensitive, feminine side, Cochran said, nor was the female Hamlet conceived as a novelty to inject fresh box-office pizazz into a play that even Shakespeare buffs might not think they need to see again.

"Hamlet's" number simply was up in the small professional company's ongoing project of staging a Shakespeare play outdoors every summer to mark the 400th anniversary of its first production. And Cochran and Executive Director Charles Johanson, the team that runs the Grove, just wanted the best actor for the part.

"Jane handles the [Shakespearean] language better than anyone I know," Cochran said.

Macfie is a known quantity at the Grove--this is her seventh play there since 1998, including leading-lady Shakespearean turns as Rosalind in "As You Like It" and Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing."

When Cochran and Johanson popped the question four months ago in a Burbank restaurant, Macfie lost her appetite and asked for time to consider.

During a four-day flurry, she mulled over her own "to be or not to be" by watching videos of film versions of "Hamlet," rushing out to see two stage productions that happened to be running in Los Angeles, and rereading the play in her Studio City apartment.

"I decided it could be affecting and touching without compromising the play," Macfie said. Having accepted the part, the first thing she did was find a combat coach, Julia Rupkalvis, who could turn her into the 5-foot, 3-inch sword-wielding, death-dealing dynamo she needs to be in the climactic dueling scene.

Otherwise, Macfie was so well-prepared as Hamlet that one of her biggest problems was remembering which lines to discard in keeping with Cochran's cuts.

"She freaked everyone out by doing the whole first read-through off-book," (that is, from memory) the director said.

Macfie, who grew up in Berkeley, said she first read "Hamlet" at age 11 on the advice of an uncle, a Shakespeare scholar who further counseled her to read the Bard out loud. She says she has read Hamlet's entire part aloud every year since then "for the enjoyment of speaking the language."

Her perspective on the play's meaning changes each time--a testament to the work's depth and what Robert Cohen, a veteran UC Irvine theater director and scholar, describes as "a mystery about the character that is part of the play's greatness."

For Macfie, the idea of playing Hamlet was until now something to fantasize about--she saw Venora's much-debated performance in New York and found it "pretty cool."

Now Macfie, Cochran and the rest of the company have the challenge of making believable a Hamlet:

* Who has a lesbian romance with Ophelia.

* Who is an object of unrequited romantic love--the lover being Horatio, Hamlet's best friend and only confidant.

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