Hamlet, like many of Shakespeare’s works, has seen it’s share of re-imaginings, from Michael Almereyda’s film starring Ethan Hawke, which moves the story to modern-day New York, to Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, set in 1960’s Tokyo. Alejandro Stepenberg’s I May Have Seen The Devil takes his re-imagining a step further, updating not only the setting, but also the main character. In Stepenberg’s production, the setting is a New England mental asylum in 1946, and Hamlet is a woman. According to him, the year the play is set in was inspired by the play itself.

“This came about,” says Stepenberg, “when I was working with Hamlet on a speech she gives to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, saying:

‘I have of late – but
wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, and
this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why,
it appears no other things to me than a
foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of works is man!…
… and yet, to me
what is this quintessence of dust?’

And as she was reading it, my brain’s gears were turning. And I realized: what else from our period filled the sky with golden fire before spreading foul and pestilent vapors? And what reduced human beings to quintessences of dust in seconds? The atomic bomb. When the bomb was first used, most Americans didn’t understand the full extent of the damage and devastation and suffering they caused – the public just knew “the bombs ended the war.” But in August, 1946 the New Yorker dedicated an entire issue to an article titled Hiroshima. No cartoons, no ads, and it sold out in hours. The eyes of Americans had been opened. For our Hamlet, an educated woman, she would have read that issue. What human beings had just done to each other, something on a scale and with a cost previously inconceivable, would be weighing heavily on her mind and heart. And it is that hyper-awareness that became the main source informing her philosophy and moral experience throughout the course of the play.”

In the story, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like Hamlet, are also women. While this wasn’t Stepenberg’s initial intention, it ended up strongly informing the relationships between the characters, especially that between Hamlet and Rosencrantz.

“I didn’t officially do any other gender swapping to start off,” he admits, “though I made it clear in the auditions that several roles – including Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Horatio would all be cast gender-blind. And while I did end up going with two women for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, allowing us to develop a fascinating personal history between the three of them, including Hamlet and Rosencrantz having fallen out with each other rather badly back in the day, Horatio stayed male so that we could also include that all-too rare relationship: a true, deep, complex platonic relationship between a man and a woman, built on care, respect, and love.”

Shakespeare is often the subject for criticism from a feminist perspective, particularly when it comes to the character of Ophelia. The queering of Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship could be interpreted, then, as a response to that.

“For all its brilliant parts, and they are myriad,” says Stepenberg, “Hamlet as a play gives its female characters some very short shrift. Ophelia is easy enough to work with and strengthen. By building up the way she and Hamlet change and embolden each other we were able to give her a place of strength from which to work when dealing with all these powerful men that she allows to rule her life, in part because she doesn’t really know any other way. But in truth the initial queering, as was with so many parts of how this all worked out, originally held less discernible resonance at first glance. When I initially decided that Hamlet would be a woman, I did so without ever considering changing Ophelia’s gender. From the decision about Hamlet’s gender came a need to better know about her relationship with Ophelia, which led to a deeper definition of the setting, which led to research which only further emboldened my commitment to the decision. And then the cycle went again, and again, each time spiraling a little deeper.”

Finding connective tissue like that, tissue which serves to strengthen and support our choices as a production, has far and away been one of my favorite parts of the whole process.”

Setting the play in a mental asylum also opens up the possibility of exploring issues regarding society’s treatment of the marginalized communities, such as queer communities and women, especially when viewed through a historic lens.

“The notion that simply because someone does something differently than you makes them insane stuns me every time I encounter it,” Stepenberg confirms. “It’s a prime example of how people allow fear, ignorance, and assumption to rule their lives in damaging ways, and that is absolutely part of the statement being made. People have been imprisoned, lobotomized, lynched, vilified, demonized, stoned, beaten, buried, shut away, and worse for being part of the LGBT community. For even supporting it. Hell, it happens in this play.”

Much like the casting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as women had unintended benefits when it came to adapting Shakespeare’s story, so did the play’s updated setting.

“It’s amazing how things work out,” Stepenberg agrees. “Take the setting of an asylum. In the early 1900s, a poll was conducted of over 1,000 women being held in mental institutions. A poll of every age, race, nationality, and religion. And they had all been admitted under the auspices of ‘Insanity by (blank).’ It could nymphomania, exhaustion, childbirth, missing of the menstrual cycle, or even excessive grieving. Hamlet’s very first speech makes a big deal about how swiftly her mother Gertrude has married her uncle Claudius (within two months of her first husband’s death), and with the setting and time being what they are we now have a fantastic and complicated reason for why Gertrude doesn’t delay: because Claudius could have her put away if she mourns her dead husband too long.

Finding connective tissue like that, tissue which serves to strengthen and support our choices as a production, has far and away been one of my favorite parts of the whole process.”

I May Have Seen The Devil

Left: Alejandro Stepenberg; Right: Melanie Hampton and Jesse LaTourette as Ophelia and Hamlet

The queering of the play’s main characters creates many opportunities to expand the discussions of relationships within the play, and certainly adds a new dimension to the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. It was those relationships, and their redefined boundaries, that hit closer to home than the characters’ sexuality.

“My own sexuality has taken some twists in the journey to where and who I am now,” Stepenberg says. “In high school most everyone thought I was gay, including me for a while. And in college I selfishly used the heart of another to mess around and discover. And after college I spent a good chunk of time as the Dom in a lifestyle BDSM relationship. And through all of that, I’ve wrestled fervently with the commonly held societal apprehension when it comes to men who both welcome and encourage the mother, the lover, the emotionally accessed spirit inside.

I’ve been in and out of relationships since I was twelve, some as short as three weeks and some as long as nearly two years. Some were as light as an extended fling, while one as serious as an engagement. Thinking on them as I do now, I realize I’ve come to believe in something beyond the boundaries that we so often use to label love. And our play has overlapping layers of so many different forms and fashions of love – between Hamlet and Ophelia, Hamlet and Rosencrantz, Gertrude and Claudius, Ophelia and Laertes, Polonius and Laertes, Hamlet and her dearest friend Horatio, Hamlet and God, and more.”

It’s natural, of course, for a play’s author to envision and ensconce part of themselves in one or more of the play’s characters. This is true for this play’s writer, who see’s parts of himself and his behavior in the main character.

“I will say,” admits Stepenberg, “the Hamlet of this cut does have one behavior that is more than a fair mirror of a way in which I’ve acted in the past. Throughout the play, Hamlet has a habit of withdrawing, of experiencing some revelation about life or about a relationship but then keeping it quiet. She then feverishly builds a truth for herself about the world, a new order to her reality, that encapsulates this idea to the exclusion of the very people it affects. And thus, as part of her tragedy, Hamlet drives herself mad.”

While the queer community is wide and varied in its membership, one of the connecting threads running through it is the plight of those who are different, who exist outside of the bounds of heteronormative society. From the daily micro-aggressions experienced by those living in even enlightened communities, to the very real threats of violence and death the exist in developing parts of the world, each member of the queer community has had to face some amount of diversity based solely on their gender identity or sexuality. And despite how far things have advanced for some members of the community, this play serves as a staunch reminder of how things used to be not so long ago, and how they still are for many people yet today.

All in all, the play offers a unique take on the oft adapted tale. It’s no small feat to take a work such as this and make it your own, but Stepenberg sounds up to the task.

This weekend will be your final chance to catch I May Have Seen The Devil.  The play has its last run this Friday through Sunday at the Seattle Center’s Theater 4. You can find more information and purchase tickets here.