The production of "Hamlet" at the Folger Shakespeare Library closes Dec. 12. The closing date is incorrect in today's Weekend, which was printed in advance. (Published 11/26/99)

"Hamlet"

Through Dec. 12

Folger Theatre

Tickets: 202/544-7077

In Joe Banno's psychological, modern-day production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the women are women and the men are men -- even the ones that are women (and vice versa). And it fell to costume designer Justine Scherer to make sure of it.

"We wanted to make it clear that Hamlet is a man," Scherer says. Which is hardly an extraordinary wish, except that the prince of the title is played by not one but three women, in addition to a man. To uncloud the gender issue, all four Hamlets have cropped hair and are identically clothed in wine-red shirts and grey pleated trousers. The women wear corsets around their chests and slight shoulder padding, and belt their pants around their hips, guy-style. For one rehearsal they also donned padded dance belts -- a sort of well-endowed jock strap -- just to get the full effect of the male equipment.

"It changes your sense of balance," says Scherer.

As for the women in the play, there's no question as to their femininity. Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, is chicly dressed in a shapely chocolate suit and simple yet sumptuous evening gown. Ophelia, Hamlet's ill-fated love interest, reveals her wild side with a short skirt and heels. And in another bit of gender-bending, Hamlet's friend Guildenstern is a slinky club kitten in a halter top and cigarette pants. She and pal Rosencrantz "are maybe heroine addicts," Scherer says. "They don't have jobs, they're just jet-setting around. It's all part of the sense of risk-taking and wildness. There's a certain amount of rebellion throughout."

Despite all her preparations, Scherer says it wasn't until the first dress rehearsal -- against Tony Cisek's ingenious mirrored set and under Dan Covey's lights -- that she knew her costumes meshed with the whole "Hamlet" world.

"You could see it worked," she says. "I was running and screaming about how fabulous it was."