When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he probably never imagined his protagonist as a woman. It's even more unlikely he imagined two of the play's minor courtiers caught in existential crisis. But that's what we get in these productions of Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, as staged in rotating repertory by Anon It Moves and String House Theatre.
Director Elizabeth Watt's rendition of the Bard's tragedy begins with a literal bang. Five hooded figures approach the audience from behind, stomping and hissing. It's a disquieting opening that sets the tone for a production that's eerie, sensual and poignant—and one in which the movement, alternately jarring and fluid, rivals the text in importance. Here, Hamlet is not a lord but a lady, and she's played by Erica Terpening-Romeo with a clear voice and ardent disposition. When she and Ophelia (Crystal Ann Muñoz) clasp their arms around each other and sway with yearning, the body becomes an extension of the psyche. It's a thrill to witness.
But while the production wins points for certain bold choices, it also feels confused. The actors wear dress shirts, leggings and jeans, but the set suggests the Elizabethan age. And the staging of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy is befuddling. As Hamlet questions the meaning of life, the other performers walk around her, stopping and starting intermittently—but why? Their pacing distracts from the power of the language.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has its own kind of circling, only this time in the form of a constant loop of questions. ("Is death like a boat?" Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern.) Tom Stoppard's 1966 absurdist classic introduces us to two minor characters from Hamlet, played here by Joel Patrick Durham and Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, as they attempt to locate the source of Hamlet's distress. But as directed by Emily Gregory, the pair operates at such a consistently high energy and volume that the exchange grows exhausting. The richly voiced Paul Susi has a funny turn as the First Player—a "comic pornographer" with a "rabble of prostitutes"—but it's not quite enough. "I remember when there were no questions," moans Rosencrantz. So do we.
SEE IT: Both plays are at Zoomtopia, 801 SE Belmont St. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays and 2 pm Saturdays through Aug. 23. See anonitmoves.org for schedule. $15.