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San Francisco by Richard Connema

California Shakespeare Company hip version of Hamlet

Also see Richard's reviews of The Other Place and The Normal Heart

California Shakespeare Company is presenting a wonderful, inventive production of The Bard's Hamlet. Over the years I have seen many great actors portray the melancholy Dane, including Peter O'Toole who opened the Royal National Theatre in London in 1963, David Warner at the RSC, and Ian Charleston at the Olivier in 1989. I was fortunate to have seen Richard Burton play the role at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1964 and later Ralph Fiennes on Broadway in 1995. The last time was Don Donahue at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a modern day version that included cell phones, security cameras, guards with modern assault weapons, and Hamlet's ghost dressed as a Desert Storm officer.

This is one of the best productions I have ever seen, though not a classic or ethereal production of Shakespeare's greatest work. The presentation is not obsessed with ostentatious acting, but it will be clearly understood by everyone, even those who are not hip to the plot. This is a drama for 21st century audiences and I am sure it will get converts to see more of the world's greatest playwright.

Director Liesl Tommy has put many distinctive touches on this three hour and fifteen minute production. All of the characters are in modern dress that looks a lot like the 1950s. There are cuts, including the entire Fortinbras subplot. During the ballroom scene in the first act the characters are dancing to '50s pop songs. It appears that both Hamlet and Ophelia are passionately in love. In fact, the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy is spoken by Hamlet when the two are ardently embraced in a romantic interlude. The violent showdown in the second act between Hamlet and Gertrude is something I have never seen.

There are more innovations, such as Hamlet meeting the ghost of his father (played vividly by Adrian Robert), who looks like a monster from a Universal film. Ophelia's mad scene is a bit overextended and wildly unfocused; she tears up the stage, and they even put her in a strait jacket. She is one wild woman. Many scenes have canny collocations and impetuous flourishes.

Tommy has assembled a brilliant cast. Leroy McClain (History Boys, Othello with Philip Seymour Hoffman in New York) plays Hamlet as an All-American boy who exudes courageousness, cleverness and forthrightness. This is a brilliant and sharp portrayal.

Zainab Jah (Ruined at Berkeley Rep) is superb as Ophelia. This is not the ethereal Ophelia I have seen in the past. Jah is mesmeric in the role, especially when Ophelia's mind is gone, as she loops about the stage in a straitjacket singing a Flaming Lips song.

Dan Haitt shines as the chattering Polonius, and Julie Eccles emits defenselessness in a conclusive, needy take on Gertrude. Danny Scheie is vigorous as the player king and also gets to use a soliloquy that has been rarely used in the productions I have seen. Jessica Kitchens gives an imaginative portrayal of Rosencrantz while Brian Rivera provides good account of himself as Guildenstern. Nicholas Pelczar gives an engaging performance as the gallant Laertes, and Adrian Roberts is powerful as both Claudius and Hamlet's Ghost. Joseph Salazar and Mia Tagano contribute good performances in their small roles.

Set and costume designer Clint Ramos offers a modern feel while fight director Dave Maier gives a realistic feeling to the violent confrontations. Sound by Jake Rodriguez and lighting by Peter West add to the enjoyment of the drama.

Hamlet marks the last play in the 2012 series of California Shakespeare Theatre, playing through October 21st at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Way, Orinda. For tickets, call 510-548-9666 or visit calshakes.org.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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