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Psych Drama Company Puts Plays On Analyst’s Couch

Psych Drama Company founding director Dr. Wendy Lippe takes on a contemporary, psychologically charged spin as the lead role, a lesbian Hamlet. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

BOSTON — A new theater company just launched in Boston with a novel and focused mission: to present and explore psychology-driven interpretations of Greek and Shakespearean plays.

The set for the Psych Drama Company’s debut production of “Hamlet” revolves around three mirrors that loom large on the stage. During the play, the characters all catch glimpses of themselves and sometimes speak to their own reflections.

Sitting in the audience you can observe yourself in the mirrors, too. Dr. Wendy Lippe, the company’s founding director, put them there as psychological devices for exploring human behaviors and interiors. She’s a clinical psychologist with offices in Brookline and Cambridge, but her alter ego is an actor.

Actors in the opening scene of "Hamlet" (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“I want the audience to be able to relate to these characters and say, ‘Oh my God! Shakespeare wrote about this hundreds of years ago, I can relate to that character. I see my reflection in that mirror. This is a human dilemma that I am struggling with now, today. This is as true now as it was in Shakespeare’s time,’ ” Lippe explained.

Actor Linda Monchick plays Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother in this classic tragedy of a son avenging the murder of his father. The story is saturated with angst.

“I’m sure people will start thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Monchick mused with a laugh.

During a break in rehearsal Monchick admitted it has been challenging to act with mirrors on stage. She studied at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox and says it’s also not easy to find thoughtful, unique productions of Shakespeare’s work. She admires Dr. Lippe as an actor, director and psychologist — and appreciates the Psych Drama Company’s “angle.”

“People are interested in psychology today and how the mind works,” Monchick said. “And of course Shakespeare was, too, he just didn’t know it was called psychology.”

As an actor, Monchick always mines her own emotional experiences to get inside her characters, and taking on the role of the adulterous, guilt-ridden Gertrude was no exception.

“You have to search your soul and see where have you been untrustworthy, where have you not been fully honest in your life, who have you hurt,” Monchick said. “You bring these real experiences to your acting to bring it out.”

The Oedipus complex is at work in this scene, where a lesbian Hamlet embraces Ophelia. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Hamlet is one of theater’s most tormented characters. His tragedy is rife with themes of family loyalty, lust, betrayal, revenge and internal conflict — making it potent material for a psychologist’s lens.

Lippe’s production is contemporary. Characters wear street clothes and suits. A paperback by Carl Jung makes a cameo. As director, Lippe condensed the lengthy script and altered some text. But the most dramatic change to this version of Hamlet is that the prince of Denmark is a princess. And she’s also gay. Lippe plays the role on stage.

It’s not the first time, though. Lippe was a female Hamlet in two previous productions, and said at first the idea flipped everything upside down in her mind. The doctor even lost sleep over trying to reconcile what the gender switch would do to Sigmund Freud’s famous Oedipus complex — or, as she puts it, “the Oedipal.”

“How can I be a psychologist and not deal with the Oedipal? That’s the thing that’s most interesting to me about Hamlet, right?” she said with a laugh.

So making a female Hamlet gay creates what Lippe calls “the negative Oedipal.”

“If we have the negative Oedipal scenario the Oedipal dynamic remains intact between Hamlet and Gertrude,” Lippe explained. “Meaning that for Hamlet the primary love object remains the mother. It remains Gertrude.”

And this is delicious to Lippe, who says the change raises the play’s psychological ante. To push it further she also asked fellow mental health professionals to analyze the rehearsal process and then lead post-show lectures after each performance. Topics include “How Hamlet Explores Memory” and “Hamlet and the Dilemma of Choice.”

Sounds academic, but Lippe assures me that’s what she aims to avoid.

“We don’t want our audience to just be psychologists,” she said. “Our hope is to really increase psychological mindedness and increase passion for Shakespeare.”

Another theme Lippe emphasizes in her production is the very human struggle between reflection and action — in the play and in our own lives.

On stage she wears ripped jeans and a red bustier. There’s a gun. Lippe delivers Hamlet’s tortured soliloquies facing one of the huge mirrors, with her back to the audience. There’s something strange and powerful about it. At the end of the play the psychologist/actor chooses to leave one mirror exposed. It’s for Horatio, the last man standing in this tragedy.

But, Lippe says, it’s also for the audience.

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  • Nsandman1943

    This is a must see performance.  Wendy Lippe is astounding in her versatility as an actress as well as a director.  The discussion following the performance although too brief was a great reminder of the timelessness of  Hamlet and its universal themes  as relevant today as when it was written. NSG

  • Glen

    As written by Shakespeare, Fortinbras is actually the last man standing.  

  • Anonymous

    I saw the play last week and was thoroughly disappointed.  Ms. Lippe has ineffectively staged a selfish and self-aggrandizing production.  She can’t speak more than 6 words without taking a “significant” pause.  At least an hour could be cut from this 3 and a half hour production by removing her pauses.  She has also added gratuitous sex scenes that degrade the aother actors, the play, and the audience forced to watch them.  The other actors work hard, but there is no getting around the misbegotten characterization of Hamlet and a direction that seeks only to pump up Ms. Kippe’s  already overinflated ego.  

    • Wynn Schwartz

      The play was long, very long, and it was emotionally
      challenging for the audience.  I
      can’t speak for the actors except that they appeared very present. Hamlet is a
      tragedy, and the real strain that attends paying attention to this highest form
      of theater has a cost. I think it was well worth paying. I can’t speak for you,
      Friend of Will, but I wonder what the cost was to you that you respond from
      what I suspect are your own narcissistic wounds. Wendy Lippe and her cast
      played their hearts out and by doing so allowed their vulnerable souls to be on
      exhibit.  I wonder what moved you
      to assault. Maybe you know?   

  • SN

    I saw the play and found it to be something new for me.  I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who appreciates different interpretations of a story that has experienced its fair share of coverage over the years.  I believe that the bold approach that I observed was a wonderful way to grab my attention. Very enjoyable.

  • nycgal

    Brilliant insights into complex characters who have fascinated theater goers since it was written. Hamlet has beckoned to actors for generations and Dr. Lippe has risen to the challenge with acumen and power. As a director, she has focused attention on the other characters as well, particularly the women. Gertrude and Ophelia are portrayed with great sensitivity. The after-performance discussion was interesting-I wish I could have heard more of them. All in all, a most satisfying theatrical experience. Kudos to everyone involved with the Psych Drama Company!

  • lorenzo

    I saw the final performance and thought Dr. Lippe’s performance was awesome! Furthermore, when considering the fact that she directed and played the lead role her performance and the performance of her cast was even more impressive.  I have become a big fan of Psych Drama and look forward to future productions

  • AZS

    I’m among those who were very impressed with this production. I just wanted to add that the gay aspect of this Hamlet production struck me as being more ambiguous than overt. If one looked literally at this production, then one should be bothered by the fact that Ophelia’s two brothers are from different racial backgrounds. Considering the amount of suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any play, I decided that gender wasn’t particularly important. That’s not a bad thing to take away from this production!

  • To BE

    Pertaining to a comment below about the director’s creating a “self-aggrandizing” production…  Among other things, Hamlet is one of the penultimate explorations of the impact upon an individual’s sense of worth (e.g. “to be or not to be”) in the context of betrayal by family and friends.  The play focuses intensely upon the choices of this one person, Hamlet, and the consequences of those choices.  IMHO, this production’s use of mirrors, along with its depiction of an act of sexual abuse and its manifestation of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, are provocative directorial choices that bring into the realm of physical metaphor what is going on inside Hamlet.  Saw this play over a week ago and still thinking about it, which is a great compliment.

  • longbeacher

    I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and found it to be riveting.
    I would not have realized the production was 3 ½ hours long had I not been told
    of its length and advised to visit the bathroom before being seated.  This Hamlet was certainly not the version I studied
    in high school, but I found it to be extremely innovative while still respectful
    of Shakespeare.  I truly look forward to
    the next play from the company.

  • rjs

    I went to the last
    performance of Wendy Lippe’s Hamlet, and
    I’ve been reading the comments of other members of the audience back through
    earlier performances. Most people have been very positive. And while the number
    of people who actually given reasons for this reaction is thin, some did, and
    those have perked me up. I am feeling myself, however, that there is something
    in this play, and in this particular performance, that most – maybe all who
    have commented —have missed, and it is very important. So I’ve decided to put
    my thoughts into the mix of comments in the hope they will spark some reactions.

     

    I have always found, in Hamlet, the playing out of an age-old
    dilemma of the human spirit: the conflict between a thinking person’s world and
    the world of a person who is driven to action by strong unthinking emotions.
    Shakespeare puts Hamlet in a position in which those emotional tugs are
    powerful ones: revenge for a father’s murder, a murderer who seduces and
    marries Hamlet’s mother, and who wields the ultimate power of a king. But we
    also find out that Hamlet is a person of thought. Why go to the trouble of
    putting on a “play within a play” if not to avoid just jumping to accept those
    ghostly words (from the start Hamlet is already raising questions about  Claudius’ marrying his mother so quickly
    after his father’s death). Rather, Hamlet seeks to find evidence that what the “ghost” said was true, and was not a
    projection of a troubled mind. Count one for reason in this round! And Hamlet
    reasons about suicide in “To Be or Not To Be”.  How many people in a state of despair who have
    committed suicide have tried to reason through whether or not to do it? This
    tension in Hamlet is almost unbearable! But as the play progresses, Hamlet’s reason
    seems to be winning. Even after becoming convinced that Claudius “did it” when
    Hamlet has a chance to kill Claudius Hamlet realizes that simple revenge will
    not serve the interests of justice, and refrains. Another point for reason. In
    the Lippe performance the tension in this scene especially – and think of how powerfully
    tempting simple revenge must be here — is played beautifully.

     

    Hamlet as a female is what
    drew me to this version of Hamlet. I asked, “If Hamlet was a woman, what would  that do to the multitude of themes and
    sub-themes in this play, but especially to the power of this basic dilemma that
    Shakespeare wants us to feel in this play?” Now that’s an intriguing question!
    And indeed, this change brought with it many other interesting changes in the
    relationships in the play: Hamlet and Ophelia, Hamlet and her mother, Claudius
    and Hamlet, all played wonderfully, and clearly, by Lippe. Did that overpower
    Shakespeare’s basic theme about this abiding conflict between thinking and
    emotion? Well, what I saw that Saturday night was that theme put in a new light
    that made it clear as a bell. Think again of Hamlet’s chance to kill Claudius
    and how those two forces were portrayed by Lippe. It showed this tension now
    etched in Hamlet’s soul and how, unresolved, something like that can bring a
    person to the brink of madness.

     

    My point here is that in this
    performance gave us a portrayal of this dilemma more clearly and forcefully
    than any other performance of this play that I have seen. Was this enhanced by
    the additional layers that Lippe’s female Hamlet brought to this play? Well, YES,
    that new light, with its own complexities, made this dilemma stand out. That’s what
    I really loved about this performance. I will think about it for many years to
    come.

     

    Then there’s the last scene.
    Shakespeare turns the tables on all of us. It is emotion – revenge, anger,
    hatred – that wins out in the end! Every death in that scene, especially
    Claudius’ own at Hamlet’s hand, is the result of passion, revenge, anger, fear.
    No justice was served by any of these. There is no way to not react in kind to
    those final despicable acts of Claudius. Or is there? Is this Shakespeare
    telling his 17th Century audiences something he perceived about
    themselves? I think maybe more than that! Shakespeare, through this masterful
    performance, is giving us, now, in the first part 21st Century, the
    same message about ourselves. This performance, especially with a female Hamlet
    in this play, shows us the universality of 
    Shakespeare’s message.

     

    But is it inevitably universal?
    Everyone in the world should see Lippe’s Hamlet and hear Shakespeare’s message
    through it – and do something about it
    that will make this a message that will
    not be true of the next generation and the generation after that in this
    Century. In a world of nuclear weapons, rapid communication, and sophisticated
    technology, our survival as a human race may depend on that!

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