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A Casting Coup

Hamlet: Now I Am Alone, adapted and performed by Kate Eastwood Norris
Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Monday, May 24, 2010, K–5&7 (last row stalls)
Co-directed by
Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell

In this one-woman (and one almost-conspicuous stagehand) production, D.C.-fave actress Kate Eastwood Norris fulfilled her dream of playing her favorite of all Shakespearean roles: Hamlet. She also played most of the other characters in the play, too, a feat that saw her adeptly shift characters and physically alter her appearance with a step or a turn, juggling dual (and triple, and quad, and, in one, scene penta) role-playing.

We met Norris in person at an American Shakespeare Center benefit reception just a couple of weeks earlier, and recalling other performances of hers we admired, especially in the masked-multi-part production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Folger (good training for this evening’s schizophrenic presentation), we decided to skip a yoga session and get down to the Folger to see what was essentially a workshop performance played mostly to a crowd of her friends and fans.

It should get a chance at a much wider audience. The post-England scenes got a bit clumsy in the two physical encounters between Hamlet and Laertes (watching those scenes, I couldn’t help thinking of Monty Python’s skit of the championship wrestler wrestling himself for the title). On the other hand, other character-shifting scenes were cleverly rendered. In the darkened theater, Hamlet and Horatio grapple over a flashlight before encountering the ghost. In the Mousetrap, Norris slid back and forth along a bench in what can only be described as a solo ensemble piece using a cup of soda as the linking prop (with Gertrude using the straw in the cup as a come-hither hint to Claudius). And in a stroke of staging genius, instead of presenting Ophelia and Laertes on stage together, Norris played Ophelia alone, first reading Hamlet’s love note, then reading Laertes’ warning to her as a postcard from Paris.

Each character was singular but based on archetypes, some of them questionable choices: Horatio as a New Jersey wise guy? Rosencrantz as a stoner (who misunderstands Hamlet’s meaning about playing on a pipe)? Claudius as a grumpy, macho patriarch? Polonius as, literally, an old fool? But her cynical gravedigger was a true discovery; she brought great depth and pathos to the part of Ophelia; and her slutty Gertrude, while more comic than tragic, was one of the night’s highlights.

The core of the presentation, of course—and the primary purpose for Norris doing it—was Hamlet. Her Hamlet was a student, somewhere between 18 and 21, and believably over-passionate, over-serious, and intensely moral though still trying to find his own moral bearings. “The time is out of joint: O, cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!” was a cry erupting from a teen’s sense of pathetic self, and Norris anchored her whole reading on that mindset. Thus, the great soliloquies plumbed Hamlet’s emotional depths rather than explored his philosophical intellect, and “To be” was spoken by a young man seriously contemplating jumping from a ledge but backing out more from fear than mission unfulfilled.

With more fine-tuning, Hamlet: Now I Am Alone could become a hit touring show. But before that happens, I’d rather see a smart director cast Norris in the title role of a full-fledge production of Hamlet. She could easily join the pantheon occupied by the likes of Branagh, Jacobi, Kline, Burton, Gielgud, and Burbage.

Eric Minton
May 26, 2010

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