Kate Hamill’s career as a playwright was born out of irritation.
“I was deeply frustrated,” Hamill recalled, describing her life as a young actor who’d answer a casting call only to find “400 women all auditioning to play somebody’s wife or girlfriend or prostitute — all these tertiary characters supporting a male protagonist journey.”
That was especially true if the play was a classic or canonical literary adaptation, even, it seemed, if the original text was written by a woman.
“Things are still quite male gaze-y in the classics,” Hamill said. On one road trip, she and fellow actor Andrus Nichols whiled away the miles by complaining about their roles, past and potential.
Hamill wagered that she could write a “feminist Jane Austen.” Nichols laughed, but in fact Hamill has 11 different productions of classics including “Little Women,” “Vanity Fair” and “Pride and Prejudice” opening on American stages this year.
Hamill’s success — and that of other playwrights doing similar work — shows that audiences want to see familiar characters from classics onstage, but they also want heroines to be fully realized, and whenever possible, for literature’s bad boys to face consequences.
That’s exactly what happens in Hamill’s adaptation of the late Victorian novel “Dracula,” which begins performances Tuesday at New York’s Classic Stage Company.
Also celebrating a success with a classic makeover: Playwright Lauren Gunderson, the most produced dramatist in America during the 2019-2020 season. Her 33 productions also include two comedic sequels of Jane Austen novels and “Peter Pan and Wendy,” which closes at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company this week after becoming one of the top shows for single-ticket sales in the theater’s 40-year history.
When initially asked, however, Gunderson was hesitant to touch J.M. Barrie’s 1904 script.
“When we first started discussing this, I was asking, ‘How much can I adapt and really change?” she said. “Because there are some tenets and a lot about the female characters in particular, that needed a major overhaul.’”
Fortunately for Gunderson, Shakespeare Theatre entirely agreed, and Barrie’s estate only insisted that the revision preserve the original Edwardian England setting for the opening scene in the Darling family nursery. From there, Gunderson was free to edit, especially her dialogue for the lead female characters of Wendy Darling, Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily.
The first thing to go? Wendy’s warped maternal streak. In the opening scene, “We see John [Wendy’s little brother] and Wendy pretend to have a baby together,” Gunderson said. “I was like, ‘That is not okay. She’s 13.’”
Since Gunderson was simultaneously working on a drama about physicist Marie Curie, she decided the Nobel Prize winner should be Wendy’s idol, rather than have her heroine view motherhood as the be-all and end-all. Yet as you may recall from Barrie’s originals or many other adaptations, the whole reason Peter lures Wendy to Neverland in the first place is so his gang of lost boys can have a mother.
Why does Gunderson’s Wendy agree to go? Because she’s an adventurer who owns a telescope and longs to learn more about the stars. Unfortunately, Tinkerbell takes advantage of the aspiring astronomer and initially sends Wendy to the wrong galaxy. The possessive little pixie is jealous of Peter Pan’s new friend; that’s something Gunderson opted not to change.
“The core question of adaptation is what do you keep that is magical and recognizable — and necessary for it to be essentially the same story, the same world, same characters — and what do we get the pleasure of changing?” Gunderson said. “This is a different story from what we’ve heard, but we still get a flying, fighting Peter Pan.”
In addition to soaring child actors, a live dog playing Nana and lots of special effects, the play includes a very intimidating Tiger Lily. Gunderson wanted to avoid pitfalls of so many earlier adaptations — including the 1953 animated Disney film and the musical starring Mary Martin that debuted the following year — and instead portray Tiger Lily as a strong indigenous woman.
While men still far outnumbered the women onstage in Gunderson’s revisionist “Peter Pan,” a black actress named Sinclair Daniel played Wendy; Isabella Star LeBlanc, a Native American woman from Minnesota, welcomed the role of Tiger Lily; and Jenni Barber, who doubled as Mrs. Darling, rocked black leather thigh-high boots as Tinkerbell.
In his mostly positive review, Washington Post critic Peter Marks noted that at “Peter Pan and Wendy’s” climax, Tinkerbell calls for “a burst of feminist solidarity [and] entreats her sisters to a call for girl power.” Audiences left the theater knowing Captain Hook could only be defeated when three women worked together to free their platonic male friend.
While the target audience for Gunderson’s “Peter Pan and Wendy” was families with young children, a few teenage girls may find their way to Hamill’s “Dracula,” and that’s very much okay with the playwright, who wants to suck the life out of a century of vampire cliches.
“The ‘Twilight’ series is my biggest personal pet peeve because you’re literally making a romantic hero out of a man who consumes you,” Hamill said, speaking by phone on a recent rehearsal break. She is experiencing some of the busiest months of her life: Her adaptations of Jane Austen’s “Emma” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” will premiere at theaters in Minnesota and California. Oh, and she’s also getting married on one of her days off from playing Renfield in “Dracula.”
In author Bram Stroker’s original version of “Dracula,” Renfield is a bug-eating male asylum patient with a strange attraction for Dracula. In Hamill’s script, it’s a bit different.
“If a vampire is in fact a toxic figure that consumes other people, what if vampires don’t have fangs and sleep in coffins?” Hamill said. “What if they are just, in fact, toxic men who represent the worst parts of human nature? A big myth of the world right now is that you can tell a toxic man from a normal man, but the truth is the monsters are all around us.”
Hamill has also amped up the agency of Mina and her friend Lucy — the young woman who literary critics believe represents feminine fragility and the dangers of sexual exploration, since Lucy eventually dies after allowing Dracula to visit her each night.
“Why should we accept that the status quo is this version where ladies in their nightgowns get preyed upon by the ostensibly most interesting character in the play? It’s a bit of a feminist revenge fantasy. That’s my unofficial subtitle,” Hamill said.
Hamill knows a feminist revenge fantasy version of “Dracula” won’t be every theatergoer’s cup of tea, especially for some drawn to her initial Austen adaptations, or to anyone who regards Stroker’s 1897 novel as sacrosanct Victorian literature.
“I’m sure I’ll get some angry letters,” Hamill said. “That’s fine.”