Smart and funny ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ plays at Workhouse Arts Center

An insightful original work focused on a young woman's journey to take on a 400-year-old male character.

I was unsure what to expect when I signed up to see Women Playing Hamlet, written by Williams Missouri Downs, at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia. It would be an all-female production, naturally, but beyond that, I wasn’t able to find much information, except a brief description and a number of reviews from previous productions (not even Wikipedia had an entry). But any expectations I could have had were pleasantly exceeded by an intelligent, funny, and insightful original work focused on a young woman’s journey to take on a 400-year-old male character.

Jessica has unexpectedly scored the role of Hamlet in an upcoming New York production, after auditioning for the role of Ophelia, and faces her own apprehension as well as judgy-ness from the masses that she is far too young to take on such a lauded character. Not to mention that she is being stalked by THE Sir Patrick Stewart.

Fabiolla Da Silva as Jessica and Shari Lewis as Bartender in ‘Women Playing Hamlet.’ Photo by Kayla Garcia.

The show can be performed with four to 18 actors, and this production consists of five women playing a total of 19 characters, including men (take that, patriarchy). Director Sarah Byrons makes great use of the Workhouse’s black box theater space, with the set designed by Joey Wallen consisting of a small stage with a proscenium in the center, surrounded by open space with some costume racks and a couple chairs. Projections are shown on a drop upstage of the proscenium, as a source of reference as Jessica narrates her experience to unlock the Hamlet within her.

Fabiolla Da Silva plays Jessica, an enthusiastic, slightly self-deprecating performer. She interacts directly with the audience, giving personal details, historical tidbits, and Shakespeare facts, all while using the Shakespearean style of Verbal Scene Painting to set the scenes. Da Silva does a fantastic job of navigating her awe of the famous women who have played Hamlet before, her desire to master this tremendous opportunity, and her basic human fear of utter failure.

Jessica employs seasoned actress Gwen (Liz Weber) for guidance. Weber is witty and borderline abusive at times, as she offers two levels of instruction: Level 1: building you up and assuring you of success, or Level 2: the stone-cold truth.

The remaining characters are played by Shari Lewis (Actor #1), Jolene Mafnas (Actor #2), and Bella Panciocco (Actor #3), ranging from a sassy teen (Mafnas), a punny Gravedigger (Panncioccco), to a chauvinistic professor (Lewis), who believes that Hamlet must have meant to be played by a woman because the character’s propensity for drastic mood swings and fits of passion.

(From top) Fabiolla Da Silva as Jessica and Bella Panciocco as Lord Derby; Fabiolla Da Silva as Jessica and Liz Weber as Gwen in ‘Women Playing Hamlet.’ Photos by Kayla Garcia.

The show has been dubbed a comedy about a tragedy, and one of the silliest (in the best way) plot points is Jessica’s paranoia that Patrick Stewart has it out for her after she committed the ultimate theater faux pas and (accidentally) interrupted his performance of Hamlet.

The material is part homage, part mockery of the pomp and genius that surrounds Shakespeare’s most well-known character. Jessica grapples with Hamlet’s existential struggle and crippling self-doubt that constantly threatens to teeter into melodrama and overacting.

Workhouse Arts Center’s Women Playing Hamlet is a delightfully entertaining production, exploring one’s search for meaning, battle against uncertainty, and ultimate discovery of self. You do not have to be a lover of Shakespeare to appreciate the play. The constant fourth-wall breaks make the show extremely intimate, and the dialogue is quick and clever.

And sticking with the all-women theme, the Workhouse also offers a range of wines from female-run companies that are available for purchase at the door and consumption inside the theater. Wine AND Shakespeare? Sounds like a perfect night out to me.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Women Playing Hamlet plays through February 5, 2022, at The Workhouse Arts Center, 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA. Tickets ($35, $30 for military/seniors 55+, and $20 for students ) are available online, at the door, or by calling the box office at (703) 584-2900.

COVID Safety: The Workhouse Arts Foundation, Inc., which operates the Workhouse Arts Center, strongly recommends that all staff, artists, volunteers, students, and patrons wear a mask while inside one of the Workhouse buildings.

Women Playing Hamlet by William Missouri Downs

Cast: Jessica: Fabiolla Da Silva; Gwen: Liz Weber; Actor #1: Shari Lewis; Gwen u/s, Actor #2: Jolene Mafnas; Jessica u/s, Actor #3: Bella Panciocco, Swing #1: Rowan Campbell (covering for Actor 2); Swing #2: Sarah Millard (covering for Actors 1 & 3)

Production Crew: Sarah Byrons (Director); Joey Wallen (Set Design); Brian Bachrach (Lighting Operator); Marty Bernier (Prop Design); Rob Cork (Stage Manager); Kate Keifer (Costume Designer); Joe Miller (Lighting Designer; Clare Pfeifer (Sound Operator); Liz Colandene (Producer/Performing Arts Coordinator); Joseph Wallen (Producer/Director of Performing Arts); Olive Keifer (Master Seamstress); Carpenters: Martin Bernier, Jacob Grice, Justin Cimino, Michael Doyle, Connor Barto, Quinn Ragsdale, Rachael Norberg, Sam Sabo, and Violetta Nagy; Violetta Nagy (Program Designer and PowerPoint Artist)


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