Reviewed by Judy Richter
The motto of California Shakespeare Theater is "Reimagining the classics." With its production of "Hamlet," however, guest director Liesl Tommy may be stretching the reimagination a bit too far with her concept. If one doesn't read the program notes, one might not realize that she sees it as a memory play in which "the structure (Elsinore Castle) has outlived its inhabitants and is now a haunted place."
Likewise, it might take a while for an observer to realize that the main part of the set by Clint Ramos (who also designed the modern-day costumes) is an empty swimming pool, strewn as it is with all sorts of clutter and set pieces. And as some directors are wont to do with William Shakespeare, Tommy eliminates characters -- most notably Fortinbras -- and rearranges scenes. Thus Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy is not a soliloquy but rather a rumination as Ophelia lies in his arms.
The essence of the story is intact, however, as Hamlet (Leroy McClain) is horrified that just two months after the death of his father, the king of Denmark, his mother, Gertrude (Julie Eccles), has married his father's brother, Claudius (Adrian Roberts). In those days, such a marriage was considered incestuous, let alone unduly hasty. As if this weren't enough, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father (Roberts again), who says that Claudius murdered him and that Hamlet must avenge the death. Thus begins Hamlet's equivocation.
In short order, he feigns madness, shuns Ophelia (Zainab Jah), accidentally murders Ophelia's father, Polonius (Dan Hiatt), leading to Ophelia's madness and another string of tragedies that leave the stage littered with bodies at the end. If this "Hamlet" is a memory play, then perhaps it plays out in the memories of Hamlet's steadfast friend, Horatio (Nick Gabriel), who witnesses nearly every scene even when the script doesn't require him to be onstage. He's the only major character who survives.
Despite some questionable directoral choices, the cast is solid, especially Eccles, Gabriel, Hiatt, and Nicholas Pelczar as Laertes. Ably filling lesser roles are Danny Scheie as Osric and the Player King, Mia Tagano as the Player Queen and a doctor, Jessica Kitchens as Rosencrantz, Brian Rivera as Guildenstern and others, and Joseph Salazar as Marcellus.
As for McClain as Hamlet, he is directed to become too emotional, while Roberts is a too monster-like as the ghost of Hamlet's father. And Jah's Ophelia goes way over the top in her insanity.
Peter West's lighting is effective, as is Jake Rodriguez's sound, which includes some hit tunes from the 1960s. Dave Maier is the fight director.
No doubt because "Hamlet" is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays -- the source of many familiar lines and expressions -- it has been extended for a week due to strong demand for tickets. Audiences won't exactly be disappointed, but they won't be seeing the best example of this classic.