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Last summer, Allie Babich was asked about her dream role at a talkback at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. At the time, she was playing "South Pacific's" classic ingenue, the military nurse and "cockeyed optimist" Nellie Forbush.
The young clasically trained actor hesitated a minute before announcing the iconic role that except for her gender might be the stuff of dramatic cliché: Hamlet, of course.
"I'm such a lover of Shakespeare, and the role is one of the greats, and I said it not really thinking I would ever have a chance to play it let alone so soon," she recalls.
Just months after making that bold claim, Babich, now 23, finds herself playing the haunted young Danish prince on the road as part of USF's 22nd Shakespeare-in-the-Schools five-state tour.
The stripped-down 80-minute show will play at the Salt Lake Community College's Grand Theatre at 11 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
Sixth-graders from Hawthorne Elementary, one of more than a dozen area schools with reserved seats, will walk down the street to attend the show. The audience will also include the SLCC basketball team and coaches, as well as SLCC theater and English students, says Tess Boone, assistant professor in the performing-arts department.
Babich says she's aware of at least three female actors currently playing the role this spring in regional theater productions. She also nods to her former USF castmate, Hallie Merrill, who played a female Hamlet last fall in the a Southern Utah University production, which gender-bent the play and set it in a matriarchy.
Unlike the SUU show, USF's touring "Hamlet" wasn't aimed at sending a gender statement, but instead was a case of director Frank Honts casting the best actor for the role.
Honts says the demands of a small cast naturally required a lot of character doubling. "Allie was compelling and clear and convincing as Hamlet, and we realized that having a female actor play Prince Hamlet was incidental to a great actor being able to tell the story of a great character," says Honts, who will return to USF this summer as a dramaturg for three shows.
What she brings to the role is "a beautiful clarity and connectivity with an audience," says Michael Bahr, USF's education director.
With just seven cast members in the company's annual educational tour, female actors have played male characters in past shows (soldiers, as well as Malcolm in "Macbeth"), as well as male actors playing female characters (such as the widow in "The Taming of the Shrew"). As Bahr describes it: "With just seven actors onstage, cool stuff happens dynamically."
Babich wears her hair short and plays a male Hamlet. Her castmate Kelly Rogers plays Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, as well as the ghost of his father and a gravedigger. And Natalie Blackman, a Salt Lake City native now based in New York, plays Ophelia and Osric.
But this is the first time a major male character has been played by a woman in the USF touring show. "I think people forget about it until they see me interacting with Ophelia" in the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene, Babich says. "That scene gets the biggest reaction because I'm throwing her around. I think it would get just as much of a reaction if it were a boy."
This production unfolds with a framing device, using Hamlet's entreatment to Haratio, as the prince is dying, to tell his story. "Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied."
"We leaned into this idea that it's Hamlet's story we really want to see and examine and preserve," the director says. "It isn't so radical that it changes the play, it just provides a bit of a frame for understanding the story."
Since the show plays in a variety of facilities, including school auditoriums, cafeteria, detention centers and community centers, the framing story helps explain why the actors have arrived at the venue.
"We landed on this idea that someone's telling the story and someone's unloading this truck and someone is coming in, and they have a good reason for telling the story," Honts says. "Rather than hide the limited means to take a show on the road, we decided we should lean into it. Storytelling shouldn't be so precious that we can't do it with whatever resources we have."
He hopes students will get the message that they have their own stories to tell, as well. "All you need is a good story," the director says. "You don't need fancy lights or equipment or scenery or all the devices that we see in professional theater. You don't need things flying in from the rafters. It's OK to see some of the backstage."
When students ask questions after "Hamlet" performances, mostly they ask about the casting of a female Hamlet, Babich says. She and her castmates like to reframe the question. "Was it distracting?" they ask. Or: "How did it alter your experience of the story?"
She likes hearing from aspiring actors at post-show workshops that seeing a female Hamlet felt "empowering."
Shakespeare productions have a long history of across-gender casting, but theater audiences mostly are aware of male actors playing female roles. Yet Bahr points to a 1863 review of "Hamlet" published in the Sacramento Daily Union, where the critic lauds Mrs. Forbes' performance in the lead role as "an extraordinary effort of histrionic talent," thanks to her "fresh and striking" readings.
After an early show of USF's "Hamlet" at a youth correctional center, Bahr was interested to hear the 12 male students discussing the casting. "These guys had never seen 'Hamlet' before, and they said: 'I can't see a boy saying those things, because a boy would never talk like that,' " Bahr says. "They said, 'Girls are allowed to say the things that Hamlet is telling us, but boys can't say those things.' "
As for Babich, she praises student audiences for their honesty. "If they don't want to be there, they're not going to clap if they don't think it's good," she says.
Everything counts, she adds. "Hamlet is an extremely smart man, and especially in a cut-down version, I've really got to make every line count. I've got to make them clearer."
She is inspired by projects such as Chicago's Back Room Shakespeare, which features serious actors performing after one rehearsal, with no director, at local bars. Last summer in Cedar City, she worked with Honts to put on "BARd BBQ," a block party-style outdoor performance of "A Midsummer's Night Dream." Because of their gender-crossing casting, it unintentionally "sort of turned into a play about gay marriage," she says.
Babich says she's looking forward to seeing more female actors playing major Shakespeare roles, and "hopes it will become the new norm."
"There are a lot of male characters that I'm really interested in playing," Babich says. "If it means I have to produce it myself, I'll do it."
Utah Shakespeare Festival's touring 'Hamlet"
When • Tuesday, April 5, and Wednesday, April 6, 11 a.m.
Where • Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • Students from more than a dozen schools have reserved seats; additional public seats might be available; free, but reservations required, at 801-957-3322
Selected Wasatch Front shows • In Gunnison, April 7; at Manti High School, April 9; at Roy High School, 6 p.m. April 11 (tickets at 801-476-3600); in Pleasant Grove, April 12; at South Jordan Middle School, April 13; at Juab High School, April 14
Complete tour schedule • bard.org/tour