- Bear Cieri
- Elizah Hill (left), Natalia Bastante (right) and cast
Hamlet is one of William Shakespeare's most famous works. It's also one of his most misunderstood — and most in need of an update — according to Burlington's Foul Contending Rebels Theatre Cooperative (FCR).
"Nobody does it funny enough," said founding member Emily Thibodeau, 25. "It's a funny fucking show."
Composed of University of Vermont graduates Carolyne Sandoval, 23, Caitlin Durkin, 24, and Thibodeau, the group aims to update Shakespeare for the 21st century.
In particular, its members want to upend expectations of gender and to create a space that's equitable to actors of all identities and body types. And the founders want to empower actors to take full ownership of their characters.
"It's about breaking down the hierarchical structure that happens in a theater company," Thibodeau explained.
FCR's free production of Hamlet, which runs Friday, August 20, through Sunday, August 22, at Burlington's Schmanska Park, is likely to leave many Shakespeare purists "pretty mad," Thibodeau said. "We've kind of chewed it up and spat it out."
FCR originated in 2018, when several of its founders were involved with the Vermont Shakespeare Festival's summer production of The Taming of the Shrew, from which FCR takes its name. In the play, central character Katherine declares of women and wives, "And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour and not obedient to his honest will, what is she but a foul contending rebel and graceless traitor to her loving lord?"
This quote didn't sit right with Thibodeau and co.
"Why shouldn't women be foul contending rebels?" she asked rhetorically. "Why shouldn't we complain about things that bother us? Why can't women take up space?"
Examining some of the Bard's other works, the nascent group pondered female characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.
"These comedic heroes end up with men that despised them for the entire show," Thibodeau said.
That said, FCR doesn't want to rewrite Shakespeare, exactly.
"You don't have to fix it," Sandoval said. "If you fix it, you're not going to succeed. [We] embrace how messed up it is."
FCR also wants to change how people typically experience Shakespeare. In 2019 — before outdoor theater was a pandemic-era necessity — the group mounted two outdoor productions: As You Like It, also at Schmanska Park, and an abridged, roving production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Performing to an audience of about 30 people, the troupe began the latter show in a suburban yard. As Midsummer's characters do in the play, the cast moved the action — and the audience — into nearby woods as the story progressed.
Aided by a modest grant from Burlington City Arts' Community Fund, FCR's production of Hamlet is its biggest so far. Widening its reach, the troupe held open auditions for the first time.
Hamlet is a story of grief, wrath and existential ennui. Traditionally, it centers on Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, whose father, King Hamlet, is murdered by his brother, Claudius, who then marries Prince Hamlet's widowed mother, Gertrude. But in FCR's version, Hamlet's mother, "Queen" Hamlet, is murdered.
Furthermore, the character identities and dialogue of Claudius and Gertrude are switched. Gertrude murders her sister and marries the widower Claudius. And to make things even more complex, a woman, Elizah Hill, plays the title role.
Thibodeau said that Hamlet has a reputation for being one of the first fully realized characters onstage. But the play's other characters are more likely to end up as exaggerated caricatures.
"A lot of these stereotypes come down to ideas about gender and marriage ... and the ruling class," she said. "When we switched those genders [and] the entire premise of those gendered relationships, I think it really did sort of bring the characters down to their foundations."
- Bear Cieri
- Josie Fox (left) and Elizah Hill
Hill, 25, will play Hamlet as male, using he/him pronouns and pinning up her blond hair. While she says she was acutely aware of the gender dynamics at play, and their subversion, she approached the character from a more holistic, humanistic viewpoint.
"I know what it is to grieve. I know what it is to feel rage. I know the complex emotions that we all have as humans," Hill said by phone.
Another change FCR made is to give Ophelia, Hamlet's intended, more stage time. For instance, as with many Shakespearean heroines, Ophelia dies offstage. FCR gives her the death scene it believes she deserves.
"It's this incredible acting experience that is taken away," Thibodeau said. "We never see the end of her story."
FCR also puts Ophelia in scenes in which she traditionally does not appear. Her father, Polonius, and other members of the court talk about her frequently, as if she's an object. Placing her in those scenes to witness said discussions underscores how little regard she's given.
Letting actors make their own character choices is one of FCR's primary tenets. For example, Hill chose to wear her hair up. Sandoval said that FCR is all about allowing performers to find "whatever helps them be the most empowered version of their character."
Many breakthroughs arrive during table work, or detailed discussions of the text and how the meaning of the words is brought out in the performance.
"A decent amount of our actors might not have worked on Shakespeare in the past," Durkin said.
Table work is also when the creative team and the cast can dig into the show's various motifs. Clothing is an often overlooked one in productions of Hamlet, according to Thibodeau.
"Clothing in Hamlet is everywhere," she said, noting the "dichotomy between the inner and outer" selves of the play's characters.
As Hamlet falls deeper into psychosis, his costumes get progressively grander.
"There's this increased masking within the world of the play of what Hamlet is actually feeling," Thibodeau continued. "And that's mirrored in the way that he's dressing."
In Ophelia's death scene, the weight of her dress pulls her down, and she drowns.
"It's not just that she lays down in the water and dies," Thibodeau explained. "She's so tired of having to present something outside and feel like something else inside. That's what pulls her under."
At a recent rehearsal, the cast and crew exuded thoughtfulness and camaraderie. They chuckled at each other's performances and ran through stunts with attention to comfort and safety. Notably, they watched each other with rapt attention.
Embracing this reporter's presence, Thibodeau proclaimed that "Good art is not created in a vacuum," eliciting a gentle laugh from the group. The statement, though short and sweet, rang true to FCR's mission.
After all, brevity is the soul of wit.
Correction, August 18, 2021: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where FCR's recent funding came from. It was a grant from Burlington City Arts' Community Fund.