Bay Area Theater Review: HAMLET (California Shakespeare)

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by Tony Frankel on September 28, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


If you have ever wanted to introduce teenagers to Hamlet, the production directed by Leisl Tommy at California Shakespeare is the one to take them to. Staged on a decrepit waterless swimming pool, as if to suggest a decaying family mansion, Ms. Tommy wisely turns the most famous play in history into a memory play. Hamlet’s Tony Frankel’s Stage and cinema review of California Shakespeare’s HAMLET in SF/Bay Areabest friend Horatio is now a witness to the tragic goings on; not only does he interact with the troubled Prince of Denmark, but he is somehow present in other scenes—sometimes behind a sliding glass door, and sometimes sitting on the steps of the pool, surrounded by artifacts one would associate with happier times: a dart board and a deflated raft are among the detritus. Hamlet’s dead father appears almost as a zombie who has scratched his way out of the grave to inform his son that he, the king, was murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, who just happens to be newly wedded to Hamlet’s mommy Gertrude. What teenager wouldn’t love to see that angst-ridden families are as old as the hills which surround the Bruns Amphitheater?

Tony Frankel’s Stage and cinema review of California Shakespeare’s HAMLET in SF/Bay AreaAnother reason to bring the entire family is that no one will feel left in the dark. This remarkably inventive adaptation contains nary a moment that isn’t wholly accessible; dialogue is delivered with sparkling clarity and powerful intention. Even those who have seen Hamlet dozens of times will be startled at the inventiveness and newfound motivation in each beautiful line: Hamlet now recites the “To be or not to be” speech directly to his soon-to-be-mad girlfriend Ophelia, making her personal denouement a revelation; and the conspiratorial Lord Chamberlin Polonius, usually portrayed as a pompous controller, is now a dotty employee who fumbles while explicating the sources of Hamlet’s madness.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and cinema review of California Shakespeare’s HAMLET in SF/Bay AreaAlso for teenagers, there is an abundance of relatable content: rock music, a family tragedy, a hero who doesn’t fit in, really lousy parents, friends who betray, and don’t forget that ghoulie with brains dangling from his forehead. Above all, the modernity of the production has characters appear as real people, not gibberish-speaking Elizabethans. Spooky sound effects by Jake Rodriguez, that creepy art installation-like set and those Halloween Ball-like costumes by Clint Ramos, and eerie shafts of light by Peter West all add to the delightful madness.

What sets this Hamlet apart from other productions, however, is not the trappings on display; Ms. Tommy’s production does not turn out as ominous and frightening as the sinister surroundings promise it will be. Trim away the design elements and you would still be left with a throng of thespians that astound in their capability of bringing relevancy to classicism. While it is a most creative idea to have the same actor portray both Uncle Claudius and the Ghost, Adrian Roberts capably creates distinction with the necessary underpinnings for each character, from seething anger to indignant nobility.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and cinema review of California Shakespeare’s HAMLET in SF/Bay AreaJulie Eccles can’t help but be sexy as Gertrude, whether she is Evil Queen or over-doting mother. Nick Gabriel’s rich portrayal of Horatio brings life to both observant onlooker and frustrated friend. Dan Hiatt is delightful as he deftly blends buffoonery with authenticity as both Polonius and the Gravedigger. Zainab Jah shows Ophelia’s incapability to speak her mind with every gesture and troubled look; it is no surprise when this poor creature ends up in a blood-red straightjacket.

Rounding out the cast are Jessica Kitchens as Rosencrantz. Brian Rivera as Guildenstern, Nicholas Pelczar as Laertes, Joseph Salazar as Marcellus, Mia Tagno as the Player Queen, and an especially hilarious Danny Scheie as the Player King.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and cinema review of California Shakespeare’s HAMLET in SF/Bay AreaAt the risk of sounding cliché, Leroy McLain makes the titular role look easy. Perhaps because this production is not about Hamlet, but Hamlet’s family. McClain’s understated performance actually supports the others on stage, which in turn makes him that much more resonant at show’s end. Humbleness in a Hamlet? Who’d have thought such a risky decision would have such a tremendous payoff? This is why, ultimately, Cal Shakes’ eminently honorable production isn’t about a historical dynasty, it’s about greed, betrayal, and, above all, disconnection from our fellow human beings.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s the teenagers who should take adults to see this Hamlet. The kids will learn to love Shakespeare and the adults may learn to be more open with their kids, lest their own family fall apart. But regardless of age, see it you must.

photos by Kevin Berne

Bruns Amphitheater at California Shakespeare in Orinda
scheduled to end on October 28, 2012
for tickets, call 510.548.9666 or visit

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