The Ladies Decide to Be or Not to Be in Women Playing Hamlet at In Your Face Productions

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Running Time: 1 hour and  50 minutes with one intermission

To be or not to be….Hamlet? This is the question that Jessica, played by Cassandra Garcia, struggles with during In Your Face Productions‘ production of Women Playing Hamlet, by William Missouri Downs, Directed by Jack Taylor. The script shows her delving into whether or not she should or could play that iconic role. Along her quest, she raises greater questions about the meaning of the source material of Hamlet, as well as what it means to be an actor, to be a woman, and to be a person. There are many deep issues raised about whether those things are the same or different for a man or a woman and how they have or have not changed from Shakespearean times to the 21st Century. Ultimately, it all comes together to a satisfying conclusion. Even better, there is tons of laughter and absurdity along the journey.

With only four actresses doing all the talking and three of them taking on multiple roles, this production was a very ambitious selection for a young company with a young director and a young cast. Just as the script itself attacks head-on concerns that Jessica is too young to play Hamlet, so does In Your Face Productions in showing the ability with which they can tackle difficult work. Although there is some room for growth, this is an overall solid and admirable handling of an incredibly heady and witty script that requires the performers to command the stage.

With simple lighting, well-designed PowerPoint slides creating a multimedia performance, and minimal-style set pieces, Director Jack Taylor sets a stage that is apropos for the script, which, in one of its many breaks of the fourth wall, explains that the actors will be using “verbal scene painting” to really set the locations of the various scenes. Taylor also does good work in staging the show. Characters move about the stage with intrinsic purpose without every making the monologues and small scenes seem stagnant. He takes a small stage and makes it seem like a much larger world. He also assembled a cast of four strong young women to bring the words to life.

At the helm is Garcia. Large portions of the show, starting with the first several minutes, are just monologues by Garcia. She keeps them interesting and varied. Garcia has excellent comedic timing and facial expressions. She has a real presence and energy on stage. It would be nice to see her relax into the role a little more. At times, nervous energy seems to keep her from connecting more realistically with some of the serious notes in the script. This works really well as Jessica struggles to find her authentic self, but it would have been nice to see a greater contrast towards the end. However, for such a young actress, she shows impressive potential.

The rest of the cast of characters are all played by a troupe of three actresses, who, in a Shakespearean reversal, play the male roles with mustaches. A few mustache mishaps aside, very simple and effective costume pieces transform the actress into a variety of different characters.  Actress 1 is Holly Blondheim. She is both a professor and Jessica’s acting coach. Blondheim has a commanding presence on stage and a good knack for making the over-dramatic seems natural. While it would have been nice to see a greater distinction between the two roles, she really shines as Gwen, the has-been acting coach. Throughout the show, she allows the characters to have layers stripped away to see the real person underneath the bravado.

Taking on considerably more roles is Actress 2: Morgan Tacka. She is a rival actress, a priest, a delivery person, a soap star, and an adolescent tech whiz. Morgan possess a very warm, likable quality on stage. The distinction between her characters is subtle yet effective. She makes grounded characters out of absurdist moments that serve as balance to the other, more dramatic performances. Even with these other strong performances, it is Actress 3 (Olivia Bowley) that consistently steals the scene. Bowley is an absolute master of accents, characterizations, and comedic delivery. She is a Shakespearean expert, Jessica’s mother, a psychologist, a bartender, a brain dead soap star, and a grave digger. Each character has his/her own unique voice and mannerisms. She shows exceptional craft in taking on the different personas and breathing them life.

In Your Face Productions definitely proves that young directors and young actors have the ability to push themselves while tackling difficult materials. This production is a strong demonstration of the collective group taking on this challenge with bravado. As the audience watches Jessica grow as an actress and a young woman as she faces the challenge of playing Hamlet, so too they see these young performers bloom through the process.

This is what I thought of In Your Face Productions’ production of Women Playing Hamlet… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Women Playing Hamlet will play through August 17 at In Your Face Productions, at Presbury United Methodist Church 806 Edgewood Rd Edgewood, MD 21040. For tickets, you can purchase them at the door or online.

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Review: [title of show] at Harford Community College

By Jennifer L. Gusso

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission

I am one of those nine people. This is the only way you start a review about [title of show] while making an obscure reference to [title of show], which is Harford Community College Actor’s Guild’s latest offering, Directed by Lizzie Detar, Choreographed by Jessica Auguste, with Music Direction by Dominic LaFrancesca. [title of show] is definitely a unique experience that takes a different twist on the original musical. It is “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.” There is something absurdist about the construct and yet the characters are real, compelling, and relatable. There are also a lot of really cool inside jokes and inside references for true theatre geeks laced throughout.

The intimate black box space is ideal for this show. You feel like you are there in the living room, hanging out and experiencing the creative process with these characters. By the end, you really feel as if they are old friends. For the most part, the decision to not use microphones also works with creating this mood; however, there are a few times when soloists are lost under the keyboard and a better sound balance could have been achieved. The most noticeable incidences are in “An Original Musical” (where Hunter should be powering above the music) and “A Way Back to Then” (in which it would nice to see the keyboard softer to match Heidi’s intimacy). Overall, especially when the cast members unite in the many harmonies of the score, the sound balance works well for the space.

What is so engaging and endearing about this production is the way that everything really feels spontaneous. Director Lizzie Detar and Choreographer Jessica Auguste have done an impressive job of creating staging and choreography that looks beautiful and is clearly carefully designed and yet also appears spontaneous and like it is being improvised in the moment. This script just wouldn’t work if anything came across too canned or too rehearsed or too much like “acting,” and Detar clearly recognizes that and keeps it at the forefront of her vision.

The actors have also clearly internalized this necessity. As a group, their reactions and interactions always feel genuine and spontaneous. The chemistry and the unity of the performers is also solid, as it is almost difficult to talk about each of them individually. The characters and the scenes are so interconnected, and none of them are ever pulling focus from the others. Still, each of them creates a unique and individual character.

Morgan Tacka gives a brilliant performance, even as she is playing an actress playing this character of herself who is self-admittedly not really much of an actress. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is; still Tacka makes all of those realities come to life at once in a well-developed and very real performance. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the always over-the-top Heidi, and yet Katie Pendergast makes her also very genuine without losing any of the pizzazz. These two women complement each other perfectly in these two contrasting roles.

The same is true of the very believable friendship and partnership between Hunter (Samuel Walton) and Jeff (Justin Strittmatter). Walton gives an incredibly endearing performance with subtle ease, while Strittmatter emotionally connects with the audience in a more playful manner. With Walton, genuine delivery garners laughter, and, for Strittmatter, it is impeccable timing. Together, their voices blend beautifully and their personalities mesh seamlessly.

Even with these four amazing performances, there are moments when it seems like Larry (Dominic LaFrancesca) might just steal the show with his fabulous one-liners delivered from behind the onstage keyboard. The stellar harmonies and vocal stylings of the cast throughout also show LaFrancesca’s excellent work as the Musical Director of this production.

[title of show] is a strong and cohesive production. The cast is dynamic and genuine. The concept is fun and funny and original. The space is perfect. The characters?/cast?/ both? ultimately decide that they would “rather be nine people’s favorite thing/Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” With a production as wonderful as the current offering at HCC Actor’s Guild, it is more than worth deciding for yourself if you are also part of the nine.

This is what I thought of Harford Community College Actor’s Guild’s [title of show]… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

[title of show] will play through February 17 at Harford Community College, 401 Thomas Run Rd, Bel Air, MD 21015, Joppa Hall Black Box Theater. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-2208 or you can purchase them online.

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