Bipolar Hypersexuality: The Psych Drama Company’s “Hamlet”

by Bryce Lambert on December 10, 2011

One would expect, given the Psych Drama Company‘s mission statement of melding clinical psychology with drama, that their inaugural production of Hamlet would have a more defined stance on one of the central questions to any production of the play; whether Hamlet’s madness is real or faked, part of some larger strategy to push Claudius’ buttons. But Wendy Lippe, who directs, stars as Hamlet, and is clearly the driving force behind the company, is vague on the subject. And any light that might have been shed on the psychology of Hamlet, which may be the world’s first psychological thriller, is diffused by a whole mess of other “artistic” goings on; a lesbian female Hamlet, cinematic music by Varsity Drag, a rape scene, and a generally oversexed production that seems at times it might end with an orgy instead of a duel. We actually get a chess match.

The text has been cut, but the show still comes in at about four hours, which I think interferes with Psych Drama Company’s MO of following each performance with a talk by a psych academic. I’m sure they’re all interesting and everything, but it’s a lot to ask from an audience at that hour. Much of the length comes from Lippe’s slow delivery and drawn out monologues. I’ve never seen a Hamlet that so much revolved around its title character and performance. While this might seem unavoidable given the sheer number of lines Shakespeare wrote for Hamlet, I think there’s a subtle (and crucial) difference between a production revolving around the character of Hamlet and the action of the play revolving around Hamlet. Some critics see Hamlet like he’s stuck inside a bad play, adding a layer to the meaning to the phrase “play within a play.” Lippe’s production came across a little narcissist, as if she was starring and directing in a solo show.

Psych Drama Company tosses around statements like this

Our production features a female lesbian Hamlet. As such, the oedipal dynamics between Hamlet and Gertrude remain intact. For both the heterosexual male and the homosexual female, the original childhood love object remains the same: it is the mother. Furthermore, when Hamlet is a woman, her feelings about Gertrude and Ophelia are inextricably bound up with her own self-loathing.

…which might have some meaning in a college paper, but doesn’t practically relate to a performance. Lippe’s sexualized reading doesn’t come off as the kind of subtext the above statement alludes to, but is rather superficially applied with fuck me boots and floor writhing. It does give us a fantastic “get thee to a nunnery” scene. I’ll happily take this scene as they did it, but even here, this hyper-sexuality (in this case, Hamlet’s hands up Ophelia’s dress) obscures our best clue as to whether Hamlet is faking his madness or not. Lippe gives her Hamlet multiple voices that seemed to correspond to different states she’s passing through, perhaps making Shakespeare’s character a little more like one from the DSM. But I had trouble following her on this. On the other hand, Ophelia’s madness was extremely well done by Lianne O’Shea and had clearly been aided by her director’s psychology credentials.

J.L. Reed (as Guildenstern) provides some much needed comic relief in a genuinely funny and unique performance. We also get good work from Linda Monchik as Getrude and while I think Cliff Blake could do a great Claudius, his performance is skewed here by some of the production’s artistic liberties. There are some great scenes, Lippe’s “to be or not to be” and her interactions with the ghost, but the show comes off as too much Lippe’s solo endeavor, without the cohesion and subtlety required for a real look into Hamlet’s psyche.

The Psych Drama Company‘s production of Hamlet plays at the BCA Black Box though December 17th. Tickets go for $25 at bostontheatrescene.com

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