By Sami Zahringer


     Jessica is a young actor in the present-day who has been a modestly successful soap-actor in “The Young and the Restless” but, at the start of “Women Playing Hamlet” (now playing at the Ojai ACT) we find her in NYC, freshly cast as Hamlet - generally recognized as the role of a lifetime. But can she rise to the role? How should she prepare? How will a female Hamlet be received? And, in the end, is Shakespeare even really “all that”? During the course of the play she seeks the counsel of an array of larger-than-life people about these questions, including a pompous, elitist professor, an acting coach certain that Jessica is not up to the role, a psychiatrist, and a chirpy grave-digger amongst others.


     All the roles are played (in what must be a backstage maelstrom of quick costume-changes) by a cast of 6 women, the irony being that, in Shakespeare’s day, women were forbidden to act, and all female roles were performed by men. There are many such little ironies in the script, as well as comic nods to aspects of the original play (The soap-stars trying to lure Jessica back to soap-land are called Rosy and Gilda; and Jessica’s down-home mother (played with a delicious Minnesota accent by a scene-stealing Sindy McKay) pulls her daughter aside at her father’s funeral to tell her (with way too much information) that she’s in love with Jessica’s uncle.) But one doesn’t have to be a Shakespeare-lover or even particularly knowledgable about “Hamlet” to enjoy this play. And anyway, with some 500 of the new words he invented -and countless phrases - peppering our modern speech, “We all bump into Shakespeare sometime in our lives.”


     Director, Larry Swerdlove does a fine job letting the comedy of the play enhance its themes rather than swamp them, drawing some hilarious comic performances from his cast.


     Inspired use of a large television screen allows us to see various tweets to Jessica and her scatty but tech-savvy niece, Emily Ostergaard (Shelby Sandefur pitch-perfect as the ditzy young Minnesotan, accent and all) from none other than Patrick Stewart whom Jessica has irritated by texting Emily during one of his performances. The tv screen also helps to take us on a pithy, illuminating trip through theatre history, as we revisit some of the great female Hamlets down the years, starting with Sarah Bernhardt’s celebrated 1899 performance.


     Tracey Sutton gives us a marvelous turn as Bernhardt, and also plays Jessica’s flamboyant, dismissive, near-abusive acting coach, who ultimately moves us with her backstory.


     Playwright, William Missouri Downs riffs on some well-known themes in “Hamlet,” amongst them: revenge, misogyny, self-doubt, and the play-within-the-play. He throws around some gentle, humorous digs on the self-absorption and earnest absurdities of the actorly caricature, as well as the perceived ubiquity of an MFA in acting. Almost every character in the play has one - the psychiatrist, the barista, the drunken barfly, everyone, and they all think Jessica is too young to play Hamlet.


     Misogyny is is strong theme in “Hamlet” and the bartender, a man of theories, holds forth with all the self-assurance of the bar-philosopher about men being inherently more decisive in life than women because men don’t, won’t, and “cannot think in variables” and emotional complexity is seen as a weakness. He opines that if Hamlet were a so-called “real” man, he would have killed his uncle immediately without dithering for 5 Acts about it -  2 minutes. Done. Play over. Claudius in the original play also regards Hamlet as “unmanly” in his open grief and rage.


     Jessica, well-played by Cecily Hendricks, is the straight role to a hilarious supporting cast. Peggy Steketee successfully juggles the roles of Bartender, Professor, Bicycle Messenger, and Stage Manager. Angela de Cicco plays Lord Derby, Gilda, the wry Psychiatrist, and a hilarious Barfly; and Shelby Sandefur gives us a colorfully daft niece, Emily; a shallow soap star, Rosy; barista Betty, and a Home Shopping Network model. Sindy McKay is a comic pleasure to watch as; the HSN host: and the grave-digger; and especially the MN mother.


Whereas Hamlet ponders suicide, which some have flippantly called “a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” this “comedy about a tragedy” seeks to show us that “laughter is a temporary solution to a permanent problem” and - some cringe-worthy knock-knock jokes aside - there are enough honest belly laughs in this production that we can only agree.


    This West-Coast premiere of “Women Playing Hamlet” runs through April 16th at Ojai ACT, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:00 PM. General admission is $18, Art Center members, Seniors and Students pay $15. Tickets are available online at www.ojaiact.org or call 805-604-8797.