To thine own self be true | ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ opens at the Grange

“Hamlet” is widely considered Shakespeare’s greatest work and the most famous English-language play ever written.

Throw in an all-female cast, jokes about the Bard and some serious personal reckoning, and you’ve got “Women playing Hamlet” by William Missouri Downs.

Described as a modern comedy about an old tragedy, the Actors Theater of Orcas Island production will be at the Grange for two weekends: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Nov. 10, 11, and 12 and 17, 18, and 19.

“Last winter I went to Florida and saw dozens of plays. This is what I loved the most,” said director Doug Bechtel. “It was so fun and such a good time. We’ve had close to 40 rehearsals, and I still laugh at it.”

When Jessica is cast as Hamlet in a New York production, it sends her into an existential tailspin. It doesn’t help that her acting coach is borderline abusive. Or that every Starbucks barista with an MFA tells her that she is too young for the role. Not to mention the fact that she is a woman. How can Jessica figure out “to be or not to be,” when she can’t even figure out herself?

The cast features Alyssa Burnett as Jessica and Valerie Buxbaum as her acting coach, plus 19 other characters played by Isabella ‘Bee’ Schermerhorn, Luann Pamatian, Susan Hampel, Liz Doane and Diane Craig. Dorrie Braun is the stage manager; Bechtel also provides audio and lighting design; and Larry Hampel is handling projection design and tech operations.

Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and are available at the Grange door, Darvill’s Bookstore and The play contains adult language.

“I was really hesitant to take the role because it’s a lot of lines. It felt daunting,” Burnett said. “As time went on, I felt so deeply in this character. It’s been really fun. I love psychology so the neuroscience of it all is so amazing. These lines are in my body now! Doug says if we aren’t having fun, we’re doing something wrong.”

Added Bechtel: “Alyssa is having a great time and the audience is going to catch up to that.”

There is a long history of females playing Hamlet, a far cry from when it was first staged in the early 1600s and female roles were performed in Shakespeare’s plays by boys. The most famous 18th-century England actress to take on the character was Sarah Siddon. Since the 19th century, hundreds of leading ladies have taken on the part, a black-diamond feat for many actors.

According to Craig, the role is more suited to a woman.

“This play offers that Hamlet is an indecisive character who must consider many variables, a trait most often assigned to women. Men, the script proposes, are more inclined to consider ‘this or that’; women tend to consider the whole picture — a trait that defines Hamlet as indecisive,” she said. “The play is a delightful romp, to be sure, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.”

“Women Playing Hamlet” calls for a selection of four different types of purses. Each purse will be crafted by Orcas premier quilter Maggie Kaplan and will be raffled off the last night of the play, Nov. 19. Raffle tickets will be available for purchase each night of the production.

“I love that it’s an all-women cast. There is a lot of talent in the group. I don’t know Hamlet intimately, but it’s so fascinating to learn about Hamlet and the history — a lot of facts about Shakespeare and Hamlet are embedded in the play,” Burnett said. “Audiences can expect to laugh a lot. The characters are pretty lovable. Whether you know Hamlet or not, the story will scoop you up. Laughter is good medicine for us during these times.”