Gloucester Stage Company left audiences spellbound last weekend with the opening of its gender-bending, contemporary production of “Hamlet,” featuring a woman in the title role.
There are dozens of stage and film versions of “Hamlet,” and Gloucester Stage’s iteration continues that tradition with its modern staging, punctuated by the music of singer-songwriter Billie Eilish.
However, the classic story continues to resonate with theatergoers, who encounter some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, including “to be or not to be” and “to thine own self be true,” within Gloucester Stage’s contemporary telling.
“It was a gut-wrenching performance and profoundly human, which made it really touching,” said Rockport’s Joseph Stiliano, a founder of the Cape Ann Shakespeare Troupe. “And it holds up because when Shakespeare wrote it, he was not really writing about historical facts about the king of Denmark. He was writing about the humanness of those involved.”
The cast brings with it a wealth of experience with Shakespeare, as well as many other theatrical works of note.
Boston actress Gigi Watson commands in the title role, joined by Shawn K. Jain as Claudius, Charlotte Kinder as Ophelia, Olivia Miller as Gertrude, Zachary Zamsky as Laertes and Thomas Grenon as Polonius.
As the story unfolds, Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, meets the ghost of her father, who she discovers was poisoned by her uncle, Claudius, who has assumed the throne as king. Meanwhile, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is now his queen, and Hamlet begins her trail of revenge.
Christopher V. Edwards, the artistic director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project, takes on directorial duties in his Gloucester Stage debut.
Edwards was interested in casting a woman in the lead as part of an exploration on how it would change the dynamics of the generational conflict in the play.
“I wanted to explore how does the narrative change with a woman in the title role, and there are these little gems that pop out and give a different perspective,” he said.
“When you do ‘Hamlet,’ it’s about fathers and sons, the ghost father and the son and the stepfather, but somehow, it also became about mothers and daughters,” he said. “In terms of casting, I was thinking of the times we are in right now, and we are interested in how young people deal with the issue of feeling disenfranchised and trying to define what is their place in the world.”
Watson was thrilled at landing the part.
“It’s certainly a role of a lifetime. It’s not a role I ever thought I would get to play,” she said. “This version is highlighting things that aren’t always highlighted, and it’s an interesting story to be telling. The play is filled with relatable moments and family drama. And Hamlet being a woman brings out different colors within these various relationships.”
For Edwards, the role of Hamlet could be played by anyone — a man, a woman, a person of color or someone who is disabled.
“Many people look at him as a very complicated human being, but he reminds us of our humanity,” Edward said. “There is no political statement here. It’s about being human under these circumstances.”
The show, which closes out Gloucester Stage’s 40th season, runs through Nov. 17.
As is tradition with the company’s season finale, the production is also intended for the enjoyment of student groups.
More than 1,200 students will see the show before it closes, with the hope that its modern edge — there’s even a scene where Hamlet uses a cellphone to show Gertrude a photo of her father — will help to sustain their attention.
Students from Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton were the first school group to take in the show on Tuesday, and the cast was thrilled by the reaction from the teenage audience.
“We were shocked at how engrossed they were,” Watson said. “They were very attentive, and you could feel their focus. Their reactions were loud and colorful and unrestrained.
“We encouraged them before the show to not sensor their reactions,” she said. “Much like Shakespeare’s time, we were receptive to audible reactions.”
IF YOU GO
When: Through Nov. 17. Regular performances Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; post-show discussions on Nov. 3 and 10.
Where: Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester
How much: $15-$48; discounts for Cape Ann residents on Nov. 6 and 13
More information: 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com